Serving a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an important rite of passage for many young LDS men and women. For early-returned missionaries, the transition back home is often very difficult.
UVU released a study on the reasons for and reactions to early-returned missionaries Oct. 30. The study shows that 73 percent of these individuals experience feelings of failure upon returning home.
The study was conducted by a team of student researchers and was headed by Kris Doty, chairman of UVU’s Department of Behavioral Science.
The study showed that 34 percent of early-returned missionaries reported going through a period of inactivity on returning home early from their missions. One third of those have never returned to activity.
“As a mother, a member of the Church and as someone who works with the Church, I am really concerned about that,” Doty said.
She said a major reason for the move to inactivity stems from how a missionary is welcomed back into his or her home environment.
The survey showed that more than half of respondents felt they were treated poorly or indifferently by their home wards.
“If they feel loved and accepted they won’t fall away,” Doty said. “As a people we do not need to make it tougher.”
Another surprising finding of the study showed that most missionaries who returned home early because of emotional and physical health problems did not struggle before their missions.
“That was a serious surprise to us,” Doty said. “We thought these would be kids who had previously had problems. They were willing, worthy and prepared to serve.”
Thomas Ash, a student at UVU studying behavioral science, helped conduct the study. He said many early-returned missionaries reported that they moved away from home just to escape negative stigma associated with their early return.
“People are looking at them wondering if they came home worthy or unworthy,” he said.
The study found that only 11 percent of early-returned missionaries came home because of disobedience. Mental health issues were a cause of early return for 36 percent of participants.
Heather Hirsche, a UVU student studying social work, was also on the research team.
“This experience shattered a lot of stereotypes that I had about why missionaries come home early,” she said.
The finding that was the most surprising to Hirsche was the huge need for these individuals to feel approval from their parents upon returning home.
“A third of these individuals did not feel like they received approval from their parents,” Hirsche said.
Findings from the study revealed that for many of those returning early, they felt their reception back into their communities was a difficult experience.
“There’s a common theme that exists among some member of the Church that if something bad happens to you you must be doing something wrong,” Ash said. “That is not the gospel, and that is not how the gospel is taught. Bad things just happen sometimes.”
Doty said the next step of her research will lead her to look for what things could be done to make early-returned missionaries feel more accepted.
She said for now she believes things like having the opportunity to report to the ward council and allowing the ward council to lead out in the welcome-home process would really help.
Members on the research team hope that awareness about the struggles and challenges early-returned missionaries face and the ability to properly respond to their needs will increase.
“We need to know that they are struggling,” Ash said. “The help they need is not pressure to go back out; it’s love and acceptance.”