Is it just my imagination, or are more missionaries returning home early? Seems like this used to be a rare event, spoken about in the same whispery voice people use to tell you someone has an embarrassing disease. Now, it happens with some regularity. In my stake in the past few years, seven or eight missionaries have returned early (and those are just the ones of which I’m aware). When I’ve asked around, my friends and relatives in other stakes report the same thing.
Everyone is aware that the Church “raised the bar” on missionaries. The Church wants better prepared and more committed missionaries. However, when I chatted recently with my sister-in-law whose husband is in a branch presidency at the Missionary Training Center she stated emphatically that the bar hadn’t been raised enough. The things she’s seen!
We all know stories of missionaries who struggle, sometimes desperately. Some I’ve heard: the missionary who was so eager to go home he went to the doctor every week, convinced he had yet another terminal disease. The missionary who slept with her mother’s sweater every night because she was so homesick. The missionary whose doctor doubled his dose of anxiety medication but still suffered so severely, he left the MTC after three days. The missionary who called his father after six months in the mission field and said, “Dad, it’s not for me. I’m just not a salesman.” The missionary (my son’s companion) who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and created all kinds of havoc throughout the mission.
There are still ill-prepared missionaries. There are still missionaries with significant mental health problems. There are still missionaries who get very sick. There are still missionaries who don’t want to be there, for any number of reasons. There are missionaries who lie to their bishops so they go and some who go under duress or because their parents will buy them a car when they come home. There are some who don’t follow the mission rules and some who can’t handle the pressure and some who realize they’re not sure of their own testimonies. Some of these young men and women stay and finish their missions. Some of them come home, after a few weeks or months.
This brings up many issues for families, wards, and individuals. My husband, sister, and good friend are all therapists. They’ve dealt with the fall-out when a missionary comes home ahead of schedule. They’ve dealt with good people who are suffering from anger, crises of faith, and feelings of failure. They’ve worked with parents who are embarrassed and disappointed, who don’t know what to tell ward members. They’ve worked with missionaries who are disillusioned and depressed. Often, the friends and families of these folks are helpful. Too often, though, there is judgment. Unfortunately, the stigma that follows these missionaries is alive and well.
Why is there still a stigma? Perhaps all those retellings of inspiring missionary stories make our expectations too high. Or we’ve sung “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” one too many times. Maybe it isn’t possible to really prepare someone for what a mission is like, and it’d be better to acknowledge that it’s not for everybody, and ease up on the whole issue.
Whatever the reasons, it’s sad to see the pain these families and ex-missionaries suffer. There are no easy answers for them because every situation is complex and highly individual. I just know it’s important to love these families and missionaries and be kinder to them, regardless of the reason for the early homecoming. We need to stop judging, gossiping and making assumptions. Maybe when you get down to it, the answer is not to raise the bar on our missionaries, but on the church members as a whole.