Every Mormon boy is taught from a young age that he should serve a mission.
A lot of time is spent your senior year of high school discussing how quickly everyone can put in their mission papers.
There is a lot of cultural expectation built in to serving a mission in the church, which is both natural and welcome. It can help boys make up their mind, and the mission is, bar none, a transformative experience for everyone who does it.
And so, when I was nineteen, I put in my mission papers and was called by Thomas S. Monson to serve in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I spent my life savings on a new suit, luggage, new scriptures and packed my bags, ready to serve the Lord for two years and convert people to the restored Gospel. I said goodbye to friends and family, and entered the MTC, ready to go.
If only it were that simple.
Exactly thirty one days after my parents dropped me off at the MTC they got back in their car to pick me up from the Salt Lake airport. My mission, in total, lasted 744 hours.
To say I was not prepared for that possibility would have been a gross understatement. When I left the mission field I had known it was the right decision, in consultation with doctors, my parents, stake president, the mission president, and the Lord. I was too sick to stay in Albuquerque.
Knowing it in your head is not the same as knowing it in your heart. I felt as though my very existence had come to a screeching halt. My friends were getting on with their life, rocketing into the sky; down on earth something had gone wrong with my rockets, and I was permanently tethered to the ground.
It didn’t help that moving pipe season started ten days after I came home.
What I was also unprepared for was the cultural onslaught. I come from a collection of small farming towns; they had very little experience with missionaries coming home early for any reason.
My mission president had told me just before I boarded the plane,
Before I go further, let me be clear: I love the people in my hometown. I lived there for nearly twenty years. I would not be the person I am today without the dozens of primary and Sunday School teachers, Young Men’s leaders, bishops, neighbors and friends. I hope to eventually move back there and raise a family of my own.The next few paragraphs aren’t meant to insult or make anyone feel uncomfortable. I am merely attempting to show what pressure early-return missionaries are under from a natural byproduct of the noble expectation that all young men (and increasingly, women) serve a full mission.
My president’s words were easier said than done. It was often in those first few months that people would say insensitive things to me or around me. The first Sunday I was back, I literally had people turning around to see if I was taking the Sacrament.
Combine that cultural disapproval with already feeling like a failure, and you get one sad former missionary.
I have seen many articles discussing how family and friends can help the missionary return to a regular life and move on from his/her shortened mission; I haven’t seen many articles that talk directly to the missionary. So, for anyone who may have come home early from a mission, I offer my own experiences and lessons I learned. I hope it will help you.
1. You are not a failure.
The best analogy I have heard is that of a man drafted to serve in the armed forces at the height of a war. Two weeks after getting to battle, he is shot in the leg and is forced to return home. Is that man a failure? He served his King and country honorably in battle and it was not a lack of character that brought him home. He is as worthy of acclamation as the victorious general who returns home when the war is won.
Even if it wasn’t an honorable release, you are still not a failure. You made the decision to serve. People make mistakes; this isn’t a church for perfect people. The Savior didn’t say “come to me, ye perfect people, and I shall save only you.” This church is for everyone to come, lay their burdens at the feet of the Messiah and take His yoke upon them. Use the Atonement to repent of whatever transgression brought you home, renew your covenants and move on.
You are not a failure for coming home early.
Just as important, your mission was not a waste of time either. I wouldn’t trade the handful of experiences I had on my mission. They strengthened my testimony and helped me see how the Gospel of Jesus Christ can help everyone, no matter their station or outlook in life.
2. Life goes on.
It seems stupid and obvious to say it, but it’s the truth. There will come a day when you are no longer THE early-return missionary, but instead you WERE an early-return missionary. Suddenly the whole experience will be seen from a new perspective.
It happened to me when I was at work, putting out copies of a movie that had just been released. It was two years after I left. I realized that even if I had served a full mission, I would have still seen this movie when it came out.
Your life will not be defined by coming home early from a mission. Even your early twenties won’t be defined by coming home early from your mission. Life keeps going. Hold your head high and eventually this won’t hang over your head. I turned 25 this year; the fact that I came home early from a mission six years ago has no effect on my day-to-day life. It’s a small, unimportant bit of trivia to everyone else.
There are still times when it can be awkward for me; lots of people my age love to tell mission stories. I have none. I usually wind up sitting quietly and listening, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It helps develop listening skills.
This is not and will not be your life story.
3. Go on vacation.
Three days after I came home my Grandpa took me to the annual “Male Family Camping” event in the middle of a desert in Nevada.
There are no rules there, but this year he did impose one. “I don’t want to see ANY moping!”
It was a good opportunity to clear my head and think. I was still trying to study my scriptures like I was in the mission field, and the emptiness for miles around let me hear the whisperings of the Spirit quite well, which was an enormous boost to me.
Go on vacation, forget your troubles, and relax.
4. You will not lose out on any spiritual experiences.
I thought in coming home I was being short-changed on the sort of spiritual experiences and growth that almost every missionary receives while he serves.
I was wrong. Some of the most important and edifying spiritual experiences I have had occurred in the period of time that I was “supposed” to be serving in Albuquerque.
The Lord does not forget anyone. You will still be able to feel His power and majesty in your life and you will still be given the opportunity to both serve His children and grow spiritually.
5. Stay strong in the church.
People are going to say silly things. Once the Elder’s Quorum President in my single’s ward said something extremely cutting about early-return missionaries in the lesson not long after I came back. He had no idea who I was or what had happened to me. I wound up leaving church early because I couldn’t keep my composure.
My mom grabbed me not long after I walked in the door, and pulled me into a corner.
“Remember,” Helaman wrote, “that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built.”
Surely “shafts in the whirlwind” can be an accurate description of the feelings an early-return missionary is battered with in those dark months after coming home.
People say silly things. They are insensitive; judgmental, even. So be it. Don’t judge them because they judged you. Don’t drift from the church because you feel unwelcome at church. You need the Savior, you need His Atonement and you need to feel the whisperings of the Holy Spirit.
Some people feel as though they are unworthy of God’s love and grace because they came home, and therefore feel uncomfortable at church. President Monson once said, “your Heavenly Father loves you—each of you. That love never changes. It is not influenced by your appearance, by your possessions, or by the amount of money you have in your bank account. It is not changed by your talents and abilities. It is simply there. It is there for you when you are sad or happy, discouraged or hopeful. God’s love is there for you whether or not you feel you deserve love. It is simply always there.”
The Lord knows each and every one of us. He suffered for each and every one of us in Gethsemane. He knows each and every sin we have ever committed, and He loves us anyway.
There is no other person in existence that knows exactly what you are feeling. There is no other person in existence that knows exactly how to help you. Don’t shut Him out because someone said something unkind to you last week in church.
Stay in the church. Keep your testimony.
It is my sincere hope that you may find peace and happiness. Whatever the reason for coming home early, know that there is hope, and you can find peace. I know you can find it because I found it. With God, all things are possible.
As the Savior himself declared,
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
My MTC District the day we arrived at the mission home in June 2009. I’m the skinny widow’s-peaked kid on the left.