One of the most common reasons given by early-returned missionaries for why they didn’t want to come home early is the fear of how they will be received by their family, friends, and ward members. Unfortunately, all too often very well-meaning people do not know that the things that they say (or don’t say) to these great young people are hurtful or feel very judgmental. This article is intended to help people who want to know what words or phrases to avoid and which are needed when someone comes home early from a mission.
ERMs often report feeling judged or even criticized by people at church. They go to church for the first time after coming home nervously anticipating someone saying something to judge (and therefore they are unwittingly looking for it) and then what happens? They hear things like, “When are you going back out?”, “Boy, you’re home quickly! What happened?”, “Did you really come home for health issues?”, or “Why are you here? Why did you come home early?” These, along with many other similar comments are typically not meant to make the missionary feel bad, but inevitably that’s exactly what happens. These questions result in the missionary feeling like an explanation is required, an excuse or reason is needed, or enough data has to be given to justify their presence back again at church. Therefore, some ERMs struggle to want to stay active in their home wards so they ward-hop with friends. Others fall into inactivity altogether. Others remain active in the church, but struggle to recover their dignity after these statements and questions are said.
No missionary should ever feel like they have to explain anything to anyone about why they are home sooner than they themselves thought they would be. Parents, church leaders, and most importantly, the missionary him/herself, are the only ones who need to know. By the time the missionary is home all of the details that went into making that decision have already been made available to the decision-makers who needed to know. That decision doesn’t have to be repeatedly re-justified for other people because of curiosity.
In a study done at UVU in 2013, Dr. Kris Doty learned that 34 percent of early-return missionaries go through at least a period of time in which they are inactive in the Church, and one-third of those individuals have not yet reengaged in activity thereafter.
Dr. Doty reported that a large reason for why these individuals drift into inactivity in the Church is because of how they are treated or how the perceive they are treated by their fellow ward members and/or family members when they come home. We can all do better than that.
So what SHOULD you say when a missionary comes home early? As a parent, how should you handle the news that your son or daughter is coming home early from their mission?
Most ERMs report that it’s not very complicated. First, don’t ignore them. Most people say nothing just because they don’t know what to say, and they don’t want to say something wrong. But staying distant and aloof, or altogether ignoring the missionary, doesn’t feel good. And when they are already coming to church with a guarded and concerned outlook for how they will be received, it is taken negatively when people ignore them.
Secondly, ERMs say that having people come up to them and embrace them helps a lot. Kind statements like, “It’s good to see you,” or “I’m glad you’re here,” are very helpful things for them to hear. Other good things to say include, “I’m proud of you,” or “Thank you so much for your service.” What matters is that the young man or woman feels loved and accepted rather than judged. And there are hundreds of great ways for helping an individual feel loved and accepted.
Ultimately, let us all work harder to embrace and love missionaries who have to come early without shaming them or embarrassing them. It doesn’t need to be complicated. We can accept them, include them, and not judge the struggles that they are going through, but rather love them through those challenges.