The following is the fourth in a multi-part series. I 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 Meeting with Church Leaders
Whether you’re a returned missionary that finished a mission earlier than expected or that’s completed the entire 24 or 18 months of missionary service, you’re going to need to meet with a Church leader upon your return.
Upon arriving home, the returning missionary that completed the assigned mission length meets first with the stake president to be released from the calling of full-time missionary. This is a bittersweet meeting. Sweet in the sense that the missionary is home. Bitter in the sense that what has become routine and faith-building is over.
At this meeting, the stake president offers words of encouragement and it’s a good experience for the entire family.
But what kind of experience does the returned missionary that didn’t finish the full assignment have at this meeting? I’m aware of several experiences, mostly good, but some not so good.
When I returned home early from my mission in 1987, my stake president was out of town. He asked that I meet with his first counselor, who was unavailable until the following day. I met with my bishop the night I got home, but he did not release me from my calling.
I arrived at the stake offices the following morning unsure of what to expect. The first counselor greeted me at the door and invited me in. It quickly became apparent that he was not pleased with the situation. I didn’t know how much the stake president had told him, but the first counselor seemed to know enough.
The first counselor started off saying the things you would expect a Church leader to say, but somewhere along the way, his personal feelings kicked in. He told me that it was a shame that I’d allowed the situation to escalate to where it was, that I should have set things in order before I submitted my mission papers. He was right, but his words and attitude stung. There was an air of unkindness and anger to his tone. I felt judged and — once again — worthless.
The meeting was short, but to the point. He released me as a full-time missionary and, adding his two cents, told me the honorable thing for me to do would be to get things in order and return to complete the call that I accepted.
I’d never come away from a meeting with a Church leader feeling as down and upset as I did from that meeting. As I replayed the interview in my mind, feelings of anger and an attitude of Who does he think he is? crept in.
The next day, the stake president called and asked if I would meet with him on the following Sunday. Great, I thought, Now the stake president will tear into me, too!
I arrived at the stake offices early, bracing for a repeat of the meeting with the first counselor. To my surprise, when he walked in the door and saw me, the stake president opened his arms and embraced me. Immediately, my bitter feelings faded and tears came to my eyes as I realized that he was, above all, expressing love.
The stake president indicated he was aware of how the meeting went between me and his first counselor and that he was sorry it didn’t go well. He extended the invitation to me to return to the mission field in a few months, but not to make that the center of my focus for the time being. He encouraged me to not lose hope and to strive diligently to live as the Lord would have me live.
His advice to me then is my advice to all returned missionaries — those who didn’t finish the full length of their assignment, and those who did.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a beacon of light, one that offers peace and hope to all who embrace it. In God’s eyes, the missionary that came home earlier than expected is as precious to Him as are all of His children.
One thing we need to realize and remember is that Church leaders are, like we are, mortal and prone to make mistakes. They’re going to have bad days, might react impulsively, might say unkind things, and a whole host of things that we all do and are guilty of. Just because they’re a bishop, stake president, or first counselor does not mean they’re perfect.
We, as Church members, tend to put our leaders on pedestals and think that they’re at a higher level than we are. I’ve come to realize over the years that bishops, stake presidents, etc., are not to be envied or thought of as being better than the rest of us. In fact, they deserve our sympathy.
You think it’s difficult to live up to being a member of the Church? Magnify your challenges in that regard several fold, and you’ll have a better understanding of what it’s like for them in their callings.
The way I see it, there must be something for them to work on and learn from the demands of their callings because theirs is a position not to be envied. Much is expected of them, especially in the area of putting off the natural man and representing the Lord in their ecclesiastical responsibilities.
Whether your early arrival home involved a loving or less-than-loving experience with Church leaders, family members, and others, never lose sight of the fact that, no matter how any mortal treats you, the Lord loves you and wants you to rise above the challenges you’re experiencing. You can always hold your head high and know that He is with you in all of the trials of your life, even when they come from sources you wouldn’t expect.
A Happy Ending
A few months after I returned home from my mission, the first counselor spoke at stake priesthood meeting. He was moving and it was his final chance to address our stake. After the meeting, I approached the first counselor to wish him well. He took me by the hand and embraced me, whispering in my ear in a choked-up voice how sorry he was for the way he’d treated me. In that moment, I realized that what he’d said to me in our first meeting were things I needed to hear. I didn’t receive them well — and he didn’t present them well — but they were things that had helped me since.
This was one of the first times I experienced the Lord’s ability to take the mistakes of mortals and turn them into experiences that are good for us and that put us more firmly on the path of discipleship.
If you’ve had a bad experience with a Church leader or Church member because of your early return from a mission — or any other situation, for that matter — remember that the Lord and His gospel are perfect, but that Church members and leaders are not. Hurt feelings, anger, or discontentment over treatment from Church members and leaders are things that can, with the Lord’s help, turn out to be for our eternal good.