This guest post was written by Lauren Baldwin, based on the paper she presented at the recent Association for Mormon Letters conference. Lauren is a professional writing student at BYU-I. After the 2012 mission age change, she was part of the first group of nineteen-year-old sister missionaries to serve in the Kentucky Louisville Mission. She works in technical communication and sometimes writes creative non-fiction on rainy days.
“As goes your mission, so goes your life” was a popular adage I heard often during my time in the Kentucky Louisville mission, where I served full-time from March 2013 to September 2014. I loved my time as a missionary but was somewhat haunted by this quote. Does the quality of your missionary service really determine success for the rest of your life? The fact that the saying is founded in church leader Jeffrey R. Holland’s statement about missionaries’ scripture study time only worsened my fears: “you tell me how those hours go, and I will tell you how. . . your mission and your life will go.”1
I served my eighteen months honorably and transitioned out of missionary life with relative ease, as did most of the returned missionaries I knew. But friends of mine who weren’t able to complete their missions seemed unable to reassume their lives as easily. I watched previously happy, successful young adults enter a social, mental, emotional, and spiritual tailspin that seemed to bewilder and incapacitate them.
Inspired by their struggle, I turned the focus of my academic study toward the cause of early returned missionaries’ struggle. I wanted to find the root of their struggle and a method of speeding their healing process. I began my research with a rhetorical analysis of early returned missionary narratives on the support blog www.missionarieshomeearly.com. In the course of this analysis, I found that the words early returned missionaries use to describe themselves reveal a radical negative evolution of identity from the time missionaries began to struggle in the field—in every narrative I read, at some point the missionary refers to himself or herself as a failure. But I also discovered something wholly unexpected: blogging can play a significant role in helping missionaries reject the identity of failure and lay a foundation for claiming a new, positive identity as member of the church valuable to building God’s kingdom on earth.
When they make the choice to serve full-time missions, LDS youth adopt an identity that is new, complex, and intense. Early returned missionary Sierra shares the significant changes she made to her life on missionarieshomeearly.com: “As missionaries we prepares ourselves in every way possible. Physically, mentally and spiritually to go and serve for 18 months or two years. We quit our jobs, put school on hold, and tell our loved ones goodbye, all so we can go out and share something that we love so much with others.”2 Sierra’s explanation provides key terms that tell how missionaries view themselves: “We prepare” indicates capability; “We quit our [pursuits]…and tell our loved ones goodbye” indicates that they sacrifice their own physical and emotional wants; “we go out” implies work and determination; and “we share something that we love so much with others” implies selflessness and passion. After this description of a missionary’s identity, Sierra makes this statement: “and then you’re told you won’t be finishing it… I felt rejected and unwanted.” To have service formally discontinued is to have one’s sacrifice of self formally discarded, as if it were inadequate. This rejection causes a flood of negative feelings and self-doubt, which narratives indicate is very destructive to any positive identity the missionary previously held. Whether a missionary’s early dispatch is due to bad behavior or a more minor issue like poor health, discontinued service leaves him or her stripped of previous positive identifiers and floundering.
But Sierra is not alone in this struggle. Other missionaries, who have fought and often won personal struggles with incomplete missionary service, want to provide resources to those in the same position. According to missionarieshomeearly.com’s “About” page, the editor of created the website specifically for this purpose:
I want LDS early return missionaries to view themselves as game changers and fully capable members of the church and of their communities. Recently I returned home early from my LDS full time mission. I was called to serve in the Washington D.C. South mission, but due to mental health challenges I only lasted in the MTC for approximately three weeks before being sent home. Coming home provided me with some of the most challenging experiences of my life. Not only did I face feelings of failure, abandonment, and fear but I was also put in a place in which I had no plans; because, truly I wasn’t supposed to be there for about two more years.
The site creator’s purpose is to help missionaries identify themselves as “Game changers and fully capable members of the church and their communities” rather than abandoned, fearful, purposeless failures, and his method is to create a space where blog posts from many authors work together to accomplish this task. According to this author, the main benefit of telling an early return story is the opportunity to serve others by sharing knowledge and experience. This motive echoes Sierra’s previous statement about a missionary’s identity: “As missionaries we prepare ourselves… all so we can go out and share…with others.” As these missionaries share their stories for the benefit of others, they are either consciously or unconsciously reclaiming the positive self-perception that they held as a successful missionary by acting like a successful missionary once again. As they perform actions that reinforced a positive self-image in the past, they forge a positive self-image in the present. These actions feed off of one another, creating a positive feedback loop that ultimately results in a new identity. These are the first steps toward overcoming feelings of failure.
The opportunities to bear testimony of the Church and offer service to other early returned missionaries are critical benefits of blogging, and missionaries nearly always end their narratives with these elements, accompanied by expressions of hope that the blog will help others and offers for further support through personal contact.
As early returned missionaries blog, their words reveal that their self-image transforms from “failure,” “unwanted,” “purposeless,” and “rejected” to “loved,” “willing,” “not abandoned,” and “useful.” Support blogs for early returned missionaries provide a powerful tool for performing selfless, missionary-like actions which allow them to take small steps toward reclaiming the positive identity they once held. As missionaries choose to react to their early return by creating positive identities through missionary-like actions, their self-images grow dramatically more positive. By providing opportunities to share testimony and serve, missionary support blogs provide a powerful resource for healing to missionaries whose identity has shriveled under cultural pressure and feelings of failure. Joshua writes, “I don’t know what I was supposed to learn, but I have a lot more compassion for those who cannot serve missions or come home early for any reason. I know God hasn’t completely abandoned me, though I don’t have any idea what He has in store… even though I don’t understand, I have faith that one day, this will all be made right.” Ryan writes, “My advice to other early return missionaries like me is that the Lord will still use you to hasten the work in another way; you just need to be willing.” Sierra writes, “If you are a missionary who came home early or anyone who overcame the odds during something really hard I’d love to hear your experience. If you have any questions or comments I’d love to hear from you. I feel so blessed and honored by the response I received from my first post.”
What does all of this mean for the church members supporting early returned missionaries? Understanding two principles is essential to providing helpful support:
- An early returned missionary has been stripped of his or her identity and has, most likely, assumed the label of ‘failure.’ This new label is probably unconscious, which only makes the missionary feel more frustrated because he doesn’t know the origin of the many negative feelings he is experiencing.
- An early returned missionary needs to build a new positive identity that is separate from missionary identity but connected to it; an identity that honors the time of service but is not dependent upon it. Know that blogging and other activities that allow early returned missionaries to share testimony, serve others, and perform other missionary-like actions can help kick-start this process.
With this understanding, members can create circumstances that provide returned missionaries the opportunity to take action and begin their healing journey. As we do these things, we can help these young adults reject the self-identifying terms “failure,” “unwanted,” “purposeless,” and “rejected” and replace them with a new identity where they are “loved,” “willing,” “not abandoned,” and “useful.”
1 Holland, Jeffrey. Seminar for New Mission Presidents. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jun. 2011. Web. 9 December 2015.
2 To avoid distracting focus from quotations’ contents, I have chosen not to acknowledge language errors with “[sic]” or other in-text inserts.
And of course, serving the full length of one’s mission is no apotropaic against feelings of failure. Talk to virtually any European missionary. Sure, we ate pastries and lacked mosquito netting and parasites, but usually we can count baptisms and lessons taught on one hand.
What a helpful discussion. It remains a puzzle how *any* young Mormon who serves a mission, whether it lasts 24 months or 18 months or 3 months, should feel like (or be made to feel like) a failure. Their service, whether blazingly productive, eminently average, or even half-hearted and reluctant, should be celebrated.
Mission service is a normative predictor, much like graduating high school and college is a normative predictor for future income. Most returned missionaries remain active in the church all their lives. A mission cannot guarantee “success,” however that is defined, and in point of fact, while we should celebrate all missionary service, the truth is there are missionaries in the field who should not be there, and some who are not who should. And further, mission and church service is only a normative predictor for normative cultural values. Salvation operates under a different context, and is why there are some Mormons standing at the temple veil who are going to hell, while there are some atheists at the bar who will make it to heaven.
I agree with Dave, though here is my two cents. Mission service is a normative predictor, much like graduating high school and college is a normative predictor for future income. Most returned missionaries remain active in the church all their lives. A mission cannot guarantee “success,” however that is defined, and in point of fact, while we should celebrate all missionary service, the truth is there are missionaries in the field who should not be there, and some who are not who should.
And further, mission and church service is only a normative predictor for normative cultural values. Salvation operates under a different context, and is why there are some Mormons standing at the temple veil who are going to hell, while there are some atheists at the bar who will make it to heaven.
According to my research, all three of your insights are correct and emphasize different facets of the issue of missionary identity. At the Association for Mormon Letters Conference, where I originally presented this analysis, we discussed that the many narratives surrounding missionary service may contribute to missionaries’ unrealistic expectations for themselves. Church members circulate stories of missionaries perceived as unusually successful. LDS children are raised on stories of missionaries who baptize hundreds of people, not only finish but extend their missions, have dozens of trainees, etc. During my time as a missionary I saw many elders and sisters–including myself–strive to become the kind of missionaries we knew stories about, especially if the missionaries in those stories were family members. Those stories largely shape missionaries’ perception of what it means to be successful. The emotional issue for a missionary, then, becomes not whether he is successful according to God’s standards, but whether he feels he is successful according to the social standard set by church culture.
I served as a ward mission leader from Sept. 2011 to last May. If I never have another calling again I would be fulfilled. I LOVED the missionaries that came here. From 2013-the present there were 12 that went home early. Some were for physical ailments, some didn’t have a testimony and were honest about it and some had some menatl health issues to figure out at home, which is fine. It’s a real contrast the best sister missionary we had served for only 3.5 months and went home and people still talk fondly of her and that was just over 2 years ago now. The best elder we had, just the best went home after 2 years finished his mission and promptly went inactive and now is living with his girlfriend and supposed to get married but he isn’t active at all. It’s so sad really. His Mom emailed me trying to get help for him but I can only do so much not living where he does. So to me the ones that have gone home early make a difference and the ones that served the fulltime need to continue to serve fulltime!
Only in the way that the missionary age is the time in your life where most people set out the course of their lives. It’s not set in stone, and it can be overcome, but it has more to do with the time in your life, than it being the mission.
I think it boils down to the American psyche and not being able to handle the idea of being a failure. I think that instead we should embrace the fact that we failed at something, and then use it as motivation to improve whatever is facing us next.
I don’t think it’s an American psyche. It’s a Mormon culture psyche born of pride and unrighteous dominion. When you lack the capacity to lead with love then the default is checking or ticking boxes. Keeping up appearances is like holding the apple in the air and growing an apple tree from the fruit to the root by shear force of will and perfect obedience. Love accepts all offerings and does not compare or measure.
There are rumors that 30% to 50% of returned missionaries go inactive. Our best and brightest. Why are we not having a global conversation about this topic? What are we afraid of?