The Upside of Returned Missionaries

I want to note, upfront, that although this post was inspired by Rachel’s and Alison’s excellent recent posts, it is not meant in any way to respond to them. I fully agree with them that there are returned missionaries—even active, temple-attending returned missionaries—who do bad things. And those bad things can, physically, spiritually, and emotionally, hurt people around them, especially where the people around them (reasonably) believe that returned missionaries should not do bad things.

Moreover, being male, my relationship with (male) returned missionaries did not have the same structural inequities Alison and Rachel describe, even when I was younger.

Still, I want to provide anecdotal evidence that, in some circumstances, returned missionaries can do good (at least, if you consider getting me out on a mission good).

Before I went to BYU, I thought returned missionaries (or at least recent returned missionaries) were complete losers. No, I don’t remember why—it’s been a long, long time. But I think I had this vision of weenies who never stopped talking about their missions, whose style was nowhere near contemporary, who eschewed real music in favor of Mormon fluff and MoTab, who peppered their speech with words like “MoTab.” Plus, I tended to be unimpressed by most of the Elders and Sisters who passed through my ward.[fn1]

My freshman year at BYU, I was a saxophone performance major. There were probably like eight of us, and then another eight or ten minors and other serious saxophone players. So we got to be fairly close. And four or so of the other majors were in their first semester back from their missions. These four guys included me in their lives. And I looked up to them.

I don’t remember a lot of details about our interactions over my freshman year. But one really stands out to me. One of the four had apparently had a horrible mission experience. One day, while we were sitting in a hall in the HFAC,[fn2] he started talking about it to one of the others. But, as he relived his experiences, he was almost apologetic to me. He needed to get it out, but he didn’t want to discourage my (then-nascent) desire to go on a mission.

I don’t remember any of the four ever expressly telling me that I should go on a mission. But seeing the people that they were helped me both want to go on a mission and understand that sacrificing my saxophone-playing for two years wouldn’t be the end of my life. They’d picked it back up after they’d returned; I could do the same.[fn3]

I can’t imagine what would have happened to me had they been the losers I imagined; I don’t know that it would have kept me from going on a mission, but it may have. And I really don’t know what would have happened if they’d been the callous, misogynistic jerks Rachel described.[fn4] That could have turned me off on missions altogether. But instead, they represented everything the Church could hope from its returned missionaries. And they provided an example to me that I hope I’ve been able to emulate since my return.

[fn1] “What an egotistical little jerk-head,” you’re probably saying to yourself right now. And you’re probably right, though, in my defense, most 18-year-old boys are egotistical little jerk-heads.

[fn2] It seems like we were waiting for a practice room or something, but I spent a lot of that year sitting in halls in the HFAC, so I can’t say for sure why we were there.

[fn3] Ultimately, when I got back, I didn’t pick it back up the way I’d played before, but that was a conscious choice on my part, not a result of serving a mission.

[fn4] Note that Rachel never called him callous or misogynistic. That’s because she’s a nice person. But that’s clearly what he was.

16 comments for “The Upside of Returned Missionaries

  1. Unfortunately I doubt the comments section on this piece will get nearly as much love because it’s not as controversial. It’s more of a “well that’s nice” story. No one cares when people do things right I guess.

    Maybe my prediction will be wrong though.

    About the idea of thinking RM’s are lame. That seems to be a fairly common thought at least now. The RM card doesn’t seem to get one very far these days and being a fresh RM means you are open game for playful ridicule. And as much as there is a culture among “True-Blue” Mormons to revere RM’s there is a just as large counter culture to not revere them. Though in my experience most people are just apathetic about it at BYU.

    This is just my experience as a male who graduated in 2009 from BYU and still lives in the heart of Provo.

  2. There is nothing magical about being a returned missionary. The idea that someone should be revered, or derided, for serving a mission is wrong. There is an implied judgment there, either on the one hand or on the other.

    There are many ways to serve a mission and obtain an “honorable” release. All experiences are not the same, just as all people are not the same. I have known men who were sent home early (and dishonorably) from their missions and who have since become great leaders and honorable men. I have known men who have served faithful missions, even served in positions of leadership, and returned home to almost immediately make poor decisions and hurt themselves and those around them. And every variable in between.

    A mission is both what you put into it and what you get out of it. It’s a time in life where lessons are learned or not. Where testimonies are build or not. Where people are changed or not. And even then, lessons may be forgotten, testimonies lost, and changes reversed. It depends on the person and the choices they make. I personally loved my mission and believe that I am a better man today because I served, yes, but more importantly because of how and why I served. I hope and pray that it is the same for all men, but through sad experience I have learned that such is not always the case.

    I believe a mission should be and is an important, even crucial step in life. But it’s only a step. Enduring to the end requires that a lot of other steps be taken thereafter.

  3. SMH that someone actually had to come in here and point out that most RMs don’t rape people and are actually pretty OK. Speak truth to power.

  4. I believe a mission should be and is an important, even crucial step in life. But it’s only a step.

    J Town, I think that having the wherewithal to complete this step IS deserving of admiration. :)

    I’m so glad Sam wrote this post. Rachel and I discussed different things involving returned missionaries’ influence, but that should not be misconstrued to mean we think RMs *generally* behave in such ways.

    I happen to have married an amazing RM. My dad, brother, brother-in-law, and son-in-law all fit into that description as well. And I think serving contributed to their awesomeness.

    Anyway, great post, Sam.

  5. I was about to protest before I saw the [fn4]. Then I laughed. I think the guy in my post was somewhat slimy in that instance, but because he never got a second date with me, I don’t know if that was anomalous or indicative of his general personality.

    And I don’t think all RMs are bad. I even married an RM. Before I got married my initials were RM. So I think it’s good that Sam putt up a post in defense of the RM.

    Missions are very important as a coming-of-age for young men in our LDS culture. And because those young men have sacrificed and served, they have grown, learned to do hard, tedious, often thankless work, been subject to the inanities of bureaucracy, and are thus on the way to life long service and work in the church. That is incredibly important to the sustainability of our lay clergy.

  6. Thanks, Alison and Rachel!

    MC, I’m not actually here to assert that most returned missionaries don’t rape people. Nobody has even implied that they do, so it would be relatively stupid of me to counter an assertion that hasn’t been made. Rather, Rachel’s and Alison’s posts reminded me of my pre-mission interactions with returned missionaries; I suspect, anecdotal as it is, that my experience is no more typical than many others’. We’re generally neither saintly nor depraved. Instead, as humans, we interact and take the interactions as they come. I just got lucky that the people I interacted with acted sincerely and well/

  7. There was one line in your post that really stood out to me, Sam.

    He started talking about it to one of the others. But, as he relived his experiences, he was almost apologetic to me. He needed to get it out, but he didn’t want to discourage my (then-nascent) desire to go on a mission.”

    I really wish this was a culture that we could change. That mentality, that you have to only talk positively about your mission lest you discourage someone who hasn’t gone not to go, is kind of what made the last part of my mission so difficult. Everyone talked about how great it was, and the discussions of the discouragement you felt, or even the less-than-laudable things, such as reputation/appearance, mission politics, and things like that were either not talked about at all or talked about in vague terms.

    Don’t get me wrong – for those who have served a mission, we can have a “gallows humor” about it, and most (like the sax player who relived experiences) seem to want to “debrief” their mission somehow, someway, to try to comprehend the spectrum of emotions that one has. And if we always talk about the frustrations or negative aspects, that will drown out the absolutely positive and life-changing things that happen through serving a mission. But what happens when that scale is tipped in other direction, and the only thing talked about is the absolute positive?

    I’d love to see us get to the point where we could have a mission “debriefing,” where missionaries could either discuss things on their mission (post-mission) with an individual, or could be in council with someone while they’re re-assimilating into society. I’d love to see that happen.

  8. “That could have turned me off on missions altogether. But instead, they represented everything the Church could hope from its returned missionaries. And they provided an example to me that I hope I’ve been able to emulate since my return.” If you really want or love to serve you can do it whatever and wherever you want. Proud to be a the family international (tfi).

  9. And you’re probably right, though, in my defense, most 18-year-old boys are egotistical little jerk-heads.

    I do think we need, sometimes, to separate the weakness of age and inexperience “of callow youth” from other things.

    Thank you for the post. I enjoyed it, very much.

  10. I loved this. Thanks!

    On my first semester back at BYU after my mission, my new roommate decided to move forward with putting in her mission papers. She later told me that I had had some influence in that decision. Like you, she had had a somewhat negative impression of returned missionaries (particularly sisters, in her case), but her worries in that regard were alleviated as we quickly became friends and she saw that I was more or less normal. I can say the same thing about the returned sister missionaries I knew before my mission. Many if not most of them were the kind of intelligent, articulate, and compassionate women I hoped to become.

    I do sometimes get frustrated with RMs that I meet when they don’t “represent everything that the church could hope from its returned missionaries,” but I think that those who disappoint me are really the exceptions that prove the rule. The reason I expect so much of returned missionaries is that those expectations are very often met.

  11. I like to think if a person has a dislike for RMs it’s because they’re not ready to go on a mission yet. Similarly to how if you’re not at the point in your life to have children, you don’t generally like children. In no place to get married–you distaste the folks living in married student housing.

    I wouldn’t be shocked if very few people are actually ready at 19, and most boys really are just looking for a way out of their parents house.

  12. There are many kinds of missionaries with different reasons for serving and different experiences. I read a novel not too long ago– unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of it, but it consisted primarily of correspondence between two friends who were serving missions in different parts of the country. One young man was a real go-getter, most baptisms in the whole mission (but once he got someone dunked, he forgot all about them and it was on the the next victim–er, prospective member), ended up as assistant to the mission president, etc. The other young man didn’t baptize as many people, but truly cared about those he taught. Guess who was the best RM?

  13. Thank you Sam for your article. Speaking as a person who served a mission that had few women I especially enjoyed what you had to say. I expect, at least hope, the the changes made in the last several years have made some differences in the way missionaries view what they are doing. I can say I genuinely enjoyed working in districts with most of the Elders in my area. Some went to other missions. Some went home early. A mission is a difficult experience. Yet as I look back it is the good things that remain in my mind.

  14. The measure of a mission is the person that you become by the end. The willingness of people to listen to the gospel, and to seriously think about God and religion, varies greatly among cultures. My guess is that in a culture where there is religious freedom, someone who grew up as a Muslim is more likely to join the church than someone who has been raised with secular assumptions all their lives, who never looks beyond the physical world. The contrast between the receptiveness of Koreans to Christianity and the lack of receptiveness of the Japanese is a real demonstration of the differences culture can make. So the number of converts you are likely to have is determined more by those factors than your own efforts. Remember the parable of the sower, that it is the same Word that goes out to all, but the reaction of the reciptient determines whether it will take root and grow into a tree of life. The same missionary can have really good exoperiences in one city and terrible ones of rejection in another. That is taught over and over by the Book of Mormon. In my day, the emphasis of my first mission president was the assumption that all “customers” were basically the same, that your salesmanship determined the outcome. My second mission president was a professor who knew that some people refuse to learn.

    The early mission in Japan was a very difficult one. The language was hard to learn, with few materials translated into that language. But the hard work done by the missionaries in the first 20 years laid the foundation for the relative success of the missions after World War II.

    Zion’s Camp did not accomplish much as a military operation, but the experience seems to have made a difference in preparing people to serve as leaders in the Church in times when leadership in adversity would be sorely needed. As a narrator on the History Channel said, Mormons are tough. We have learned to persevere with love despite no immediate return. And a lot of that grows out of the missionary experience. If you are a missionary who invested hundreds or thousands of hours in each convert, you have more appreciation for how precious each new Mormon is.

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