Editor’s note: Members of the LDS Church embrace a theology that includes a daily quest for personal perfection, if not in this life, then in the afterlife. That quest can become toxic if it morphs into self-righteousness and judgment of how well others meet one’s own internal standard. This is the second in a series of stories about the impact such judgments can have on individuals, families and the church as a whole.
LDS children grow up attending Primary classes and singing the words: “I hope they call me on a mission when I have grown a foot or two.”
Years down the road, some of them have left their missions early, never served missions or waited to serve until they were older than the average age, and many of them feel judged.
Provo native and BYU-Idaho student Jonathan Bean was “24.9 years old” when he left for the Kansas Wichita mission in April 2014. He never felt judged for his age when he was on his mission.
“As far as being here in Provo, that’s a bit of another story,” Bean said.
Bean said he had a supportive family and friends, and didn’t feel judged by them.
“But when the only question asked by acquaintances becomes, ‘When are you going on your mission?’ … instead of, ‘How are you?'” Bean said, “There was kind of some humanity, some love that was lost in the shuffle there.”
After going through this experience, Bean vowed to never push someone into serving a mission. The experience of serving later made him a more understanding person, he said.
“(It) makes me softer, to be honest with you,” Bean said. “Rather than say something like, in my head, ‘Oh, I wonder why he’s not or she’s not,’ now it’s a lot more like, ‘I wonder what I can say to help.'”
With President Thomas S. Monson’s 2012 announcement changing the minimum age requirement for missionaries, the pressure to serve earlier has become stronger. Many women also say they feel more judgment and pressure to serve missions.
UVU social work associate professor Kris Doty-Yells said the judgment many early-returned missionaries feel makes their already difficult return home even harder. Doty-Yells said nearly 73 percent of early-returned missionaries feel like failures.
“If people didn’t feel like they were being judged, it wouldn’t be so hard for them to come early,” Doty-Yells said. “If they felt completely, unconditionally accepted, then it wouldn’t be such a big deal.”
Two of Doty-Yells’ four children returned home early from their missions. Doty-Yells wanted to understand her sons, students and others better, so she conducted a survey in 2012 of 348 early-returned missionaries.
Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said they believe they were received poorly or indifferently by their ward members. One-third of the early-returned missionaries surveyed said they were received poorly or indifferently by their families.
Doty-Yells said she also knows of parents who say, “There won’t be a place for my child if he comes home early.” One young man who returned home early said his parents wouldn’t even come to the airport to pick him up until he called.
“It’s just amazing to me that anybody who professes to accept the gospel — which is all about unconditional love and acceptance — would turn their children out or give them a hard time,” Doty-Yells said.
She said well-intentioned priesthood leaders can make early-returned missionaries feel more judged as well.
One young man Doty-Yells interviewed came home for issues unrelated to worthiness. After he returned, his priesthood leader approached him and said, “I don’t care what you’ve done. I love you just the same.”
Doty-Yells said many people assume early-returned missionaries come home for transgression. According to her studies, only 12 percent come home early for issues related to transgression. The primary reason missionaries return home is because of mental illness, which turned out to be about 36 percent of the people Doty-Yells interviewed.
“It really has a lot to do with shame, and that’s where the judgment comes from,” Doty-Yells said.
Doty-Yells said several early-returned missionaries feel judged in their wards and families when they come home. Many of them feel people are treating them with a “what-are-you-doing-here” attitude, Doty-Yells said.
Early-returned missionaries often feel ignored as well right after they return, she said. Doty-Yells said this is because church members often just don’t know what to say, or they don’t know how to approach the situation because it’s not openly talked about in the church. Early-returned missionaries then feel ignored or judged because of the silence.
“It’s amazing how many of them said that they felt the judgments of other people even if they couldn’t give me specific examples of being judgmental,” Doty-Yells said.
Doty-Yells said this is in large part due to the strong cultural push to serve and complete a full-time mission. Many early-returned missionaries feel like they aren’t good enough.
Mary Blackner served in the Alabama Birmingham Mission from June 2013 to March 2014. Blackner had planned on serving a mission since she was young. During her mission, she started getting depressed and didn’t feel like herself anymore. She said she couldn’t eat or sleep and started getting terrible headaches.
“I started praying more and studying more and trying to be happy, but nothing really worked,” Blackner said. “(It was a concern) what people would think, but it was also that feeling of failure and wondering why, and seeing other missionaries that weren’t obedient or didn’t want to be there, and they were totally fine and having success. … So it was just really frustrating and a feeling of defeat more than anything.”
Having those feelings of failure and defeat were difficult enough, Blackner said, without the added judgment and pressure. But Blackner said she didn’t feel much judgment once she returned home to University Place, Washington.
It wasn’t like she had a broken leg everyone could see, Blackner said, but her ward members could see she wasn’t herself and were understanding.
“It wasn’t until I came back to school where I kind of felt that,” she said. “And I just felt uncomfortable about it, because I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell them the whole story,’ but you couldn’t just lie. I couldn’t change the dates.”
Once Blackner arrived home, she focused on herself and things that helped her relieve stress, like playing the piano, reading and talking to her mom.
“I could run away from the rest of the world and just go to those things,” Blackner said. I think that was the biggest thing: just relying on the people that were closest to me that did understand.”
Blackner said she now feels blessed to be able to help so many more people because of what she went through — something her mission president’s wife said would happen. Blackner worked as a resident assistant for a long time and said she was able to help women who had depression and anxiety.
“I feel like I would’ve been one of those judgmental people if I hadn’t dealt with it,” Blackner said. “I guess it turned out to be a blessing even though I never would’ve wished it upon myself.”
Doty-Yells said it’s important to make a distinction between the church and the culture of the area.
“It isn’t the church that’s persecuting these kids or judging these kids,” she said. “But most of it is from the family and the ward family and the neighborhood and everything else. It’s all about the culture.”
BYU political science junior Brixton Gardner works as a training coordinator at the MTC and has lived in Provo for about three years. Gardner said people in Mormon culture often talk behind other peoples’ backs and make assumptions.
“If we see someone or something that appears to be out of line, I don’t know how in our culture our first reaction is to judge and to cast them out,” Gardner said. “We should pick them up and talk to them.”
Gardner said church teachings advise us to not judge and to think about people in an understanding way. He said we need to look at the life of Jesus Christ and follow His example of helping and loving more.
“And I think if you take that approach of understanding first, you’re filled with a lot more compassion and you want to help that individual instead of cast them out,” Gardner said.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife is a licensed psychotherapist who works primarily with LDS Church members. Finlayson-Fife said part of the reason Mormons judge is because they see people acting outside of the “cultural norm” and start to wonder about those people and what they are doing.
“As human beings, we really like simple frames of references,” Finlayson-Fife said. “Not just Mormons, but as human beings in general. We like ways to quickly assess if someone is good or bad, or like us or not like us.”
So Finlayson-Fife said it is part of human nature to judge and assess others.
“Even if we understand Christ’s teaching to not judge, it’s very, very easy to make a simple assessment based on someone’s age, or whether or not they have a child, or whether or not they got married in the temple, or whether or not they went on a mission,” Finlayson-Fife said. “We’ll do things like that to just size people up; and often it’s unfair, and often it’s not seeing the complexity of that person, and often it’s to our disadvantage.”
She said this act of assessing others based on what we see about them on the outside can limit people and cause them to see people inaccurately.
“I think that’s why Christ admonished us to not judge because it interferes with wisdom and it interferes with kindness toward others,” she said. “You have to resist that natural man impulse to judge quickly instead of really attending to what’s in peoples’ hearts and the uniqueness of their situation, which may be different than ours.”
The first story in this series is titled “Mormon cultural snap judgments affect church members.” Next in the series: Mormons experience cultural judgments regarding relationships.