Every year thousands of young people work hard to prepare themselves for missionary service for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They scrimp and save, study and read, and exercise mentally and physically to be completely prepared for the rigors and stresses of mission life. When finally they have their paperwork completed and submitted, they are both excited and nervous to receive that envelope in the mail (which now comes in email form) informing them where they have been assigned to labor for the next 18-24 months. In spite of the frayed nerves and jitters about embarking, when that day finally arrives they are so hopeful about being successful in their pursuits in the mission field and they can’t wait to get started.
For some, the start of their mission is the beginning of a new challenge they did not anticipate, and the excitement very soon fades. For a variety of reasons, a small percentage of missionaries run into some problems on their mission that require them to come home earlier than anticipated. Sometimes it’s health problems. Other times it is mental health challenges like depression or anxiety. Medical and mental health issues account for over 70% of the reasons why missionaries have to return home early.
But in spite of the fact that these challenges are completely out of the missionary’s control, they come home with intense worry about being judged or poorly received. One sister with whom I was working in counseling stated that she worried that if she had to come home early, “…people would avoid me. They would treat me like a failure. They wouldn’t know what to say or do and they certainly wouldn’t celebrate me and welcome me home with the same joy and congratulations that a missionary who completed their mission would receive.”
The reality is that anyone who goes through the process of preparing for and then going on a mission deserves a hero’s welcome, regardless of when they return! The mission call states, “It is anticipated that you will serve for a period of 18 [or 24] months.” It does not say, “It is anticipated that if you do not serve a full 18 or 24 months, you will be considered a failure and should be completely ashamed of yourself, dishonorably released, and not be considered a true returned missionary.” Yet unfortunately, that is precisely what many early-returned missionaries feel.
The issue of how early-returned missionaries (ERMs) are received when they come home is an important one. I have talked to several bishops and stake presidents, MTC workers, parents, and ERMs and RMs to get a better understanding of the scope of what missionaries experience or worry about when presented with the possibility of having to go home early. Across the board the biggest concern is shame and disappointment. They worry that they will let everyone down, and even worry that “everyone” includes God Himself! The Church is doing much to try to mitigate this misperception, but the LDS culture that exists in some places more intensely than in others needs a lot of work.
My purpose in writing this first article is to try to help a little in reassuring every ERM who comes home for medical and mental health reasons, as well as so many other reasons outside of their control, that you have done your best, served honorably, and should not be in the slightest bit ashamed of your service! There is no room for shame or fear of disappointing anyone when God is pleased that you went in the first place.
The absolute best way to understand that truth is to consider the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, found in Matthew 20:1-16. Told from the Savior’s lips, this parable describes how the Lord of the vineyard, who is symbolic of Christ, needed work done in his vineyard (the mission field). He hired some early in the morning, some at about the third hour, and still some others at the sixth and ninth hours, always agreeing that, “Whatsoever is right I will give you.” And then at the eleventh hour, just before the end of the day, he hired some more to go out into the vineyard to work. At the end of the day they all came in for their wages and the Lord of the vineyard paid each of them, regardless of how long they had been out, the same: one penny (which was a day’s wage, and was a good wage). Those that had “endured the heat of the day,” or translated, had been out the whole time, were not happy with this accounting and complained about getting the same reward as those who were not out as long.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in his talk in April 2012 entitled “The Laborers in the Vineyard,” paraphrased what the Lord’s response was to these workers, “My friends, I am not being unfair to you. You agreed on the wage for the day, a good wage. You were very happy to get the work, and I am very happy with the way you served. You are paid in full. Take your pay and enjoy the blessing. As for the others, surely I am free to do what I like with my own money. Why should you be jealous because I choose to be kind?”
In terms of missionary service, this parable quite simply means that the Lord is pleased with ALL of his missionary workers who labor in the vineyard, regardless of the length of time they are out in the fields working. What matters to Him is that they went, and that they worked with whatever means they had for as long as they had it. And what matters even more to the missionary who served is that, regardless of the amount of time they were in the vineyard, the wage paid by the gracious Lord of the vineyard is the same for all.
Please know, dear missionaries who may have had to come home early, that you have done a great work, and the Lord is pleased. Cease to feel ashamed of your gift of service, no matter how long or short that service may have been. In the parable of the talents the Lord was just as pleased with the servant who was given five talents and turned it into ten as he was the servant who was given two talents and turned it into four. You completed your mission. Your efforts are honored and accepted by the Lord. It is now time to lift your head up high and move forward into the rest of your life, focusing on school, career, and starting a family. Move forward confidently and at peace and God bless you for what you have done.