“Survey Results Show That … A Mission Makes a Big Difference,” Ensign, Feb. 1978, 72–73
A recent survey of returned full-time missionaries provides hard evidence that a mission does make a difference in a young man’s life. Over a thousand missionaries answered questions on their attendance at Church meetings; obedience to certain key commandments; and service in the Church; and the results were impressive:
97 percent of the returned missionaries attended at least one sacrament meeting a month, and 91 percent attended at least three sacrament meetings a month. This is far ahead of over-all Churchwide attendance figures.
89 percent of the returned missionaries had a current Church calling.
95 percent of the returned missionaries who were married were married in the temple, again far ahead of Churchwide figures.
Why was the survey conducted? Elder Carlos E. Asay of the First Quorum of the Seventy, executive director of the Missionary Department, explained that for some time stories have persisted in the Church claiming that a high percentage of returned missionaries became inactive. “Even one or two missionaries falling away concerns us greatly, but we found it hard to believe that such large numbers were being lost!” So, to find out if there was a great problem, and, if not, to squelch such stories, Eric Ott of the Missionary Department and John Madsen of the Priesthood Department administered the survey.
The questionnaires were mailed to 1,757 returned missionaries. More than 65 percent of those who received questionnaires returned them—an unusually high percentage for mailed surveys. But to reduce the possibility of error even further, the bishop of every fifteenth returned missionary was called, to see what relationship there was between the missionaries’ self-assessment and their bishops’ view of their activity in the Church, and also to see if those who returned the questionnaire were significantly more active than those who did not.
The results of the follow-up survey reinforced the original results. Though missionaries who failed to return the survey tended to be slightly less active, the difference was almost negligible—three percent.
Not only are today’s returned missionaries very active—they’re also more active than their counterparts forty years ago! A survey of missionaries conducted in the 1930s suggested that 84 percent of the then living returned missionaries were full or part tithepayers, compared to 92 percent full tithepayers today; 83 percent were active in terms of attendance at meetings in 1936, while 91 percent are very active today, and 97 percent attend at least monthly.
But the high percentage isn’t cause for too much self-congratulation, Elder Asay warns. “The results of the survey were a bit better than I had expected—and I had expected them to be good. But we’re very concerned about all our missionaries. To lose just a few is still tragic; we’re not content with 91 percent or 97 percent. We want 100 percent of our missionaries to come home and be active, faithful Latter-day Saints.”
In the survey, missionaries pointed out some of the areas that were of most concern to them. The most-named problem area was that of dating, courtship, and marriage. Many missionaries felt that too much pressure was put on them to marry quickly after their missions; others found that it was strange and difficult to get used to dating again after two years of being involved in other things.
So far as marriage is concerned, Elder Asay pointed out, “We’ve never set any kind of time limit on missionaries.” There is no magic number of months within which a returned missionary should be married; “I’ve told returned missionaries to keep themselves pointed toward marriage,” Elder Asay says. “But they shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry, either. They should seek the right kind of girl, one that they can take to the temple, have sealed to them, and with whom they can build an eternal marriage.”
What does it mean to keep oneself “pointed toward marriage”? Elder Asay explains, “It means that you shouldn’t become ingrained in bachelor ways. Don’t make yourself so happy with solitary life that you no longer want to get married.”
Another clear result of the survey was that the single most helpful thing local Church leaders can do to help returned missionaries stay active is to give them “meaningful assignments” that can keep them interested in Church work. They’ve spent two years in the forefront of the gospel program—it can be discouraging to suddenly feel unneeded.
One missionary who wrote a personal answer on the survey commented about how painful it was when, after great personal sacrifice of time and money for the Lord’s service, he came home to find that the Church no longer seemed to need him. Others, who had more positive homecoming experiences, pointed out that one of the things that helped them most was having something to do in the Church.
But it isn’t enough just to give them a job and forget them. Missionaries are used to being interviewed every six to eight weeks by their mission president. They’re used to having their priesthood leaders take an active role in helping them to be happy. Elder Asay suggests that “Quorum leaders and bishops need to keep close contact with the returned missionary.” Excellent advice on how to do this is contained in the pamphlet The Returned Missionary.
The responsibility is shared, of course, by the missionary himself. Perhaps the most harmful thing a missionary can do is to immediately drop his missionary way of life. Elder Asay recalls, “In my final interview with the young men in my mission who were about to go home, I would reach across my desk and hand them a blank sheet of paper and say, ‘Let me give you fifteen minutes to write down all the habits you’ve cultivated while in the mission field—all the habits.’ They’d come back to me with a list that always contained at least twenty items—things like going to bed and getting up early, praying every day, studying the scriptures daily, good personal grooming, using time carefully and wisely, and many others.”
When they had gone over the list together, Elder Asay remembers, he would then ask them to cross off the list all the habits that they felt would now be inappropriate, after their mission. “Cross off everything that will be obsolete, everything you can afford to drop.” Tracting would disappear from the list, and a few other things that belong exclusively to the full-time missionary work.
But most of the list remained. “I can’t afford to lose any of these,” they would tell Elder Asay, and he concurred. “If you want to retain the Christlike attributes you acquired on your mission, you can’t afford to lose any of those good habits.”
What can ordinary Church members do to help returned missionaries stay active? Elder Asay’s, answer was quick: “My personal feeling is that the most supportive thing a regular member of the Church can do is simply to be a good member. It can really shake a returned missionary’s faith to come home and see how casually the members of his ward take the gospel. It can be very disappointing.”
Comments from individual missionaries also point out something else that the folks back home can do to help missionaries feel good about their missions—and about themselves: many missionaries, as well as some folks at home, come to feel that reaching a leadership position in the field—like zone or district leader—is a sign that they have been “successful.” And along with that is the idea that if they don’t get such an assignment, they have “failed.” Folks at home should avoid giving that impression to their sons and daughters. Numbers of baptisms, too, can vary widely between missions and between missionaries—and people at home should remember that inspiration puts each missionary where he is most needed, not necessarily where he will baptize the most people.
What does a returned missionary most need when he comes home? One young man said that one should “have a heart-to-heart talk with his stake president or bishop or someone who would listen. Just listen—to the inner feelings of the missionary, his fears, how he felt about his mission—don’t let him be in turmoil over how well he did and how well he’s doing.”
As Church members welcome returning missionaries back into the wards and branches, however, we should not be thinking about the problems the returned missionary has to face so much as we should be thinking of the great strength those young men and women have to offer. Despite occasional problems and difficulties, they remain the most active, involved, dedicated segment of the Church population. They may need to lean on us in some ways—but in many other ways we, too, must depend on them.
“These returned missionaries are the backbone of the Church,” Elder Asay said. And the recent survey report shows how very strong that backbone is.