“When ‘The Best Two Years’ Are Over,” Ensign, Dec. 1978, 29
He had been home ten days. … He still sometimes thought in German, forgot and used German words, which made people smile. At first he had been lost without a companion and the daily routine of missionary work, but in the last two or three days there had been moments when he had to think about his mission to remember it, as if it were possible to forget the whole two years.
… At first he had thought that everything and everyone … had changed, but then he realized that it was himself, and that change was proof of what had happened to him on his mission, how he was new, which he couldn’t have understood in Germany. (Douglas H. Thayer, “Elder Thatcher,” Under the Cottonwoods and other Mormon stories, Provo, Utah: Frankson Books, 1977, pp. 79–80)
The finality of a packed bag. The last interview with the mission president. The knotted stomach. The plane ride home. The reunitings. And the realization: a full-time mission is a part of life’s greater mission.
“One of the great purposes of a full-time mission is to prepare the missionary for his or her future role in the Church,” says Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone, member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and former president of the Texas San Antonio Mission.
One’s mission is not over when the stake president extends an official release. According to President Spencer W. Kimball, missionaries should have the understanding that their mission “is not a two-year mission; it is an eternal mission. It not only includes all their mortal lives, but their spiritual lives after their demise when they will continue to preach the gospel.” (Regional representatives’ seminar, 30 Sept. 1977)
The weeks and months of adjustment after the two-year mission ends are critical in the success of one’s continued mission.
“I can honestly say it was the hardest transition I’ve ever had to make,” says one returned missionary. “I was prepared to go on a mission, but not prepared to return.” Another returned missionary agrees, suggesting that parents should place as much emphasis on “preparing for life” as on preparing for a mission.
On the other hand, some missionaries have little adjustment on returning home—no more than members moving into a new ward. But whether or not the returned missionary has much adjusting to do, missionaries and mission presidents agree that the transition can be a time of growth and success if missionaries determine to keep the same standards they kept in the mission field.
“A returned missionary should still serve, still plan for each day, still keep himself clean, still share the gospel. The only thing that changes is that he doesn’t go tracting,” says Elder Featherstone.
One elder remembers similar advice given by President Spencer W. Kimball: “President Kimball, then serving as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, spoke after a sacrament meeting to several of us missionaries. He stated that we looked great as missionaries and suggested we maintain the same image following our full-time missions. If missionaries maintain the same standards where applicable, they wouldn’t find the conflicts they do in ‘adjusting.’ That advice was good; at least it worked fine for me.”
Some returned missionaries and mission presidents identify these key elements in a successful transition:
As the returned missionary relaxes from his rigorous mission schedule, he may be tempted to discontinue habits—prayer, meditation, scripture study—that are essential to his spirituality.
One returned missionary explained what he has observed: “We let ourselves relax too much. We react to the freedom of not having to respond to rules. Our lifestyle becomes a series of indulgences, to some degree, in those things we could not do during our missions. It’s like overeating after a fast. One gluts himself with ‘worldliness.’”
But this indulgence backfires because, as Elder Featherstone suggested, returned missionaries may find themselves more spiritually sensitized than before their missions. “They get home, and their spirit is a different spirit than it was before they left. Now, if they let their hair grow too long, for example, it is offensive to their spirit, and they start feeling uncomfortable.”
More common than a conscious abandonment of missionary habits is an unconscious lowering of one’s personal expectations. A young woman convert who served a health mission in South America describes her experience: “At first, I felt this depression, this terrible weight on me, because I had quit studying. I was getting out of tune with the Spirit. Then I began spending mornings studying my institute lessons and the scriptures. I had felt so empty; but studying again made me feel so good.”
Elder Carlos E. Asay, member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and executive director of the Missionary Department, says that missionaries are unique—they stand out in a crowd—because of the special missionary character they have developed after two years of forming good habits: getting up early, studying the scriptures daily, praying, keeping themselves well groomed, etc. “Returned missionaries can’t afford to lose any of their good missionary habits. If they don’t hold on to them, they’ll be throwing away two years of precious training!”
Elder Hartman Rector, Jr., member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and president of the California San Diego Mission, tells his returning missionaries to check themselves periodically on “points of positive affirmation”:
—I am morally clean. I live by Doctrine & Covenants 121:41–46.
—I sustain the general authorities and stake and ward leaders. I keep my eye on the prophet by reading what he says and then following his counsel.
—I pay a full tithe.
—I live the Word of Wisdom.
—I observe the Sabbath by using the day for “uplifting, inspiring activities,” and by not buying.
—I am honest in my dealings with my fellow men.
—I daily read, study, and ponder the scriptures.
—I daily pray with earnestness. I pray for specifics, and I pray with humility.
—I set worthwhile goals and actively work to achieve them.
—I hold a current temple recommend and attend the temple regularly. I wear the temple garments with honor and reverence. I will be married in the temple and will raise my family in the Church. I will do all in my power to have all of my family united together in the celestial kingdom.
Mission presidents now give returning missionaries a card-size list of spiritual checkpoints and encourage them to review them often. Elder Featherstone tells his returning missionaries to check them each fast Sunday, and if they find themselves slipping, “to go alone into the mountains, or somewhere, and to meditate and pray.”
This assessment also can be effective when done with priesthood leaders, family members, and friends. A returned missionary explains that having a “heart-to-heart talk with a stake president or bishop, or someone who will listen, just listen, to your inner feelings, to your fears, to how you feel about your mission” can help resolve leftover fears, regrets, and problems.
A returned missionary who has remained active tells what keeps him spiritually attuned: “Continue to study, pray, associate with good people, and serve in whatever capacity possible. In other words, live the gospel.”
“The first couple of months after my mission, I was so nervous around girls that I couldn’t say anything,” says one returned missionary who laughs and adds, “which isn’t much different from how I was before my mission!”
For many returned missionaries, the suitcase isn’t unpacked before the pressure comes—with good intentions—from parents, friends, and other Church members: “Get married.” Some returned missionaries feel they have to follow a timetable in marrying soon.
As far as Church guidelines go, returned missionaries have—and should have—no deadlines for marriage. The 26 May 1978 Messages from Church Headquarters to stake, mission, and district presidents and bishops and branch presidents states:
“It is entirely appropriate and desirable that priesthood leaders counsel returning missionaries on the importance of continuing to live standards that will lead to celestial marriage. It is considered unwise, however, to recommend or imply that the missionary should be married within a specified time period following his release. Although the returned missionary should keep himself worthy and pointed toward marriage, the decision to marry is of such importance that it should be approached only after the most prayerful and careful consideration. During the post-mission period of social, emotional, and physical readjustment, and the differing individual demands of employment and education, the returned missionary should not feel pressured by specific time constraints in approaching this very personal, sacred, and significant decision.”
A returned missionary may be awkward around persons of the opposite sex at first. And the pressure to find a mate can intensify the awkwardness. “For eighteen missionary months, I wouldn’t even think of holding hands,” a returned lady missionary stated. “Then when I got home, I cringed whenever a date touched me. I felt like holding hands was almost sinful. I didn’t see how I could ever get married. It just took some time.”
Once the awkwardness passes, the returned missionary may find himself or herself “really in the market” says one elder. “I went through a stage when I dated seven different girls at once. I learned you have to settle down and stop trying to date everybody in the world, though. It’s better to strike a balance.”
For some, the balance involves simply finding people to date. One returned missionary came home with less hair on his head than he had when he left for his mission. Some girls won’t go out with him because the top of his head is bald, his roommate says. But once people get to know him, his baldness doesn’t matter to them; “the girls in the home evening group love and adore him.”
After two years without dates and freedom, a returned missionary—even one with a previous girlfriend—may feel a need to hold on to his “new” freedom; wishing to meet new people and make new friends, he may hesitate to make commitments too soon after coming home. One elder suggests, however, that while it’s usually a good idea to look around for a while, returned missionaries should be careful not to “continue this love for freedom too long.”
Elder Featherstone suggests dating a variety of people and then deciding. “Of course, they may not have a mallet tap them on the head and say, ‘This is the right one.’” Elder Rector indicates that each person should have a sureness of his potential mate similar to his sureness of the gospel. The individual should make his decision and ask the Lord for confirmation.
As a missionary is released, the rights and authority that attended his calling are no longer his. Spiritually, he feels a difference.
Emotionally, there is a similar difference. A returned missionary, particularly one who has been home a while, isn’t recognized as he once was. Not many call him “elder” anymore. As one former missionary says, “He doesn’t have four million people praying for him anymore.”
With a backward glance, a returned missionary may feel that the “best two years of his life” are past, and that none will ever be as good. But one elder relates: “The missionaries I know who most successfully adapted to reality after their missions were the ones who dove right into the business of living in the here and now. The best attitude was, ‘I’m glad I went on my mission, but I’m happy to be home and getting on with finishing school, starting a career, etc.’ The ones who experienced the most frustration were the ones who looked back on their mission years as a golden age. Hence, they spent a lot of time living in the past and not looking forward to the future.”
The key to looking forward is service.
“The missionary should understand that he needs to spend his life filling other people’s buckets,” Elder Featherstone says. “If he will only take time to fill others’ buckets, his own will be filled. There are a lot of people going around dipping out of other people’s buckets, but what we need are bucket fillers.”
A returned lady missionary explains her feelings about Church service work after her mission: “When I came home, I wasn’t thinking of staying home long, so from August to November I had no callings. It was like living just for myself, and it was horrible.” With slight exaggeration, a returned elder makes a similar point: “It really helps if the bishop is right there to hand the returned missionary a Sunday School manual when he gets off the plane.”
Some missionaries report that their bishops and stake presidents have helped them by offering many opportunities to serve. One says what helped him was that his bishop called on him to pray in meetings, invited him to go home teaching, interviewed him to determine his interests, and kept him busy in Church service.
The elders quorum president is also an important figure in a missionary’s adjustment. “Besides meeting with the stake president and bishop,” says Elder Asay, “returning elders should also report to their quorum president and immediately become involved in the activity, service, and fellowship found in the quorum.”
Continued service will help returned missionaries feel that their service is needed. “Some missionaries feel they have given, and now it’s time for them to put in time for themselves again,” says Elder Featherstone. A returned missionary told of the temptation to feel this way: “If the returned missionary lets him, Lucifer plants into his mind that he has paid his debt to the Church and that now there are better things to be done.” The resolution? “The Spirit is too sensitive for that kind of attitude,” replies Elder Featherstone. “I believe that if a missionary comes home with the idea of serving other people, he can’t go too far astray.”
Elder Asay urges all priesthood leaders to study the pamphlet entitled The Returned Missionary (stock no. PBMP000A) for suggestions on ways to help returned missionaries make the transition from serving in the field to serving at home.
Another factor in maintaining self-esteem is goal-setting. In the mission field, full-time missionaries are expected to set and reach goals. Their successes are measured. Because of this emphasis on goal-setting, the transition from a highly structured to a less structured life can be disconcerting.
“When a missionary goes back to a less structured existence, it seems to him that nobody cares whether he sets goals and prays anymore,” Elder Rector says. But the returned missionary should go on setting and working toward goals anyway. Elder Rector encourages missionaries to set guidelines for planning their lives—such as getting married in the temple, raising children in the Church, getting a good education, being a good provider and parent, and staying righteous and active.
Returned missionaries are encouraged to set their own goals through undertaking the Pursuit of Excellence program, which emphasizes spiritual, intellectual, physical service, and character challenges. (Pursuit of Excellence, no. PCMP39U3, 10¢ each)
Some returned missionaries may find that outside a mission setting they lack the energy to carry out goals they set. “The energy level of a mission is difficult to maintain, especially for an energetic missionary,” reports one elder. “The returned missionary may have to accept the fact that he is going to be discouraged when he can’t accomplish the same things on the same level he accomplished on his mission.”
Nonetheless, continuing positive personal habits such as studying, getting up early, holding self-evaluations, and setting goals will help the returned missionary find fulfillment.
One such area of fulfillment can be in setting and attaining educational goals. Elder Rector encourages missionaries to pursue training that will make them employable. “That doesn’t necessarily mean getting a Ph.D. or even a B.A.,” he says. “There are excellent trade schools that can prepare you to earn a good living. Training is important.”
Although it helps if a missionary knows where he wants to go to school, he shouldn’t feel he has to have his career planned out before he starts, Elder Rector adds. “I don’t think it makes much difference what career he selects, as long as it’s something he enjoys doing and it is harmonious with spiritual growth.”
Returned missionaries are encouraged to continue their gospel education by enrolling in courses provided through institutes of religion at colleges and other schools.
As the returned missionary resumes normal life and activity, he may find that people and situations do not meet his expectations. For example, when he is away he might remember only the best about his friends and family. “When he comes home, he may get the impression that everyone has apostatized from the Church because they’re not reading the scriptures, holding family prayer every night, and actively fellowshipping their neighbors,” Elder Rector says.
“A returned missionary shouldn’t take it upon himself to call his family and ward members to repentance—that’s not the way to do it. Instead, he should do as Paul told Timothy in I Timothy 4:12 [1 Tim. 4:12]—‘Be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.’”
He should react to others with the same love his Father in Heaven has for him. And he should remember that God does love him, reminds Elder Featherstone.
“The Lord really loves returned missionaries. He really blesses missionaries. Just think—for two years they gave more than seventy hours a week proselyting and teaching, and they paid their own money to do it.”
An elder echoes that idea: “A returned missionary needs to remember what he’s done for two years and needs to have faith and patience that the Lord’s going to bless him for it. I very much picture a Father in Heaven who is proud of his returned missionaries and is looking forward to blessing them, especially as they prayerfully seek to adjust to ‘the rest of their lives.’”
Most returned missionaries are adjusting to the rest of their lives very well. According to a recent study conducted by the Missionary and Priesthood Departments, the great majority of returned missionaries actively attend Church meetings (97%), observe the Word of Wisdom (97%), marry in the temple (95%), pay a full tithe (92%), and serve in Church callings (89%).
Indeed, the Lord does love and bless his returned missionaries. And it’s obvious that returned missionaries love him, too. “Missionaries are a great strength to their own wards and stakes when they return,” Elder Asay says. “They are one of the greatest resources of the Church.”