Study explores impact of early returned LDS missionaries

Missionaries sing during weekly devotional at BYU's Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. For the first time, nearly 3,000 missionaries gathered at the Marriott Center for the weekly Tuesday devotional. JAMES ROH/Daily Herald

PROVO -- It was meant to be the best two years of their lives, but for some LDS missionaries, the life long dream of serving a full-length mission is cut short. For some it ends because of physical health, for others it's mental health and for some indiscretion. Whatever the reason, the hardest trip for them wasn't to the mission -- it was coming home.

On Tuesday, Utah Valley University professor of Behavioral Science Kris Doty and a research team of students presented a new and intriguing study: "Understanding and Assisting Early Returning Missionaries." The study involved interviewing and survey responses from 348 early returned missionaries or ERMs. 

The study was done between April and September of this year with the median age of those interviewed being 29. The study does not deal with missionaries that have gone out since the LDS Church announced the lowering age of missionaries. 

Doty said the catalyst for the study came a year or so ago when she experienced the early return of a missionary on a personal level.

"I had a couple of people close to me who have come home early," Doty said. She wondered if the feelings they were having were a common phenomenon. 

"It became a full on research project. We first did 12 interviews with young men, and then developed the survey questions around those interviews." Surveys were answered nationally, but most were students at UVU, Brigham Young University and University of Utah.

What Doty found was that more than half of the missionaries that came home early did so because of depression and anxiety that developed from stress. 

"It's not uncommon for mental health issues to come out at this age in life," Doty added. 

Going on a mission for young LDS boys, and many girls, is a cultural rite of passage. Statistically those ERMs are very active throughout their early growth years. Of those interviewed or who filled out the survey, 87 percent were from a two-parent family, 81 percent were born with active member parents, 72 percent wanted to serve and 70 percent were worthy. However, the statistics started dipping when the questions turned to being prepared. Approximately 85 percent said they were physically prepared, 64 percent said they were spiritually prepared, 60 percent said they were mentally prepared, and 58 percent said they were emotionally prepared. 

"Going on a mission is romanticized," Doty said. "Just over half were prepared emotionally. They were not ready for rejection. There is a lot of hard work on missionaries."

But that hard work doesn't compare to what many have faced when they came home to their wards, families and neighbors. For some, there is a feeling of quiet shunning or of being a failure.

"The thing that really stood out in the study was that 73 percent had feeling of failure regardless of why they came home. Even if they came home honorably," Doty said. "Ones that had spiritual experiences during their time on the mission sealed their testimony."

However, the study showed that 34 percent of all ERMs have a time of inactivity. But those who did not experience spiritual experiences on their mission had a much higher inactivity rate and some leave the church still carrying guilt and depression. That is not what the LDS Church wants for any member. It is hoped that family and members would rally around such individuals and give them added love and support and opportunities to serve where possible.

"It is our hope that all church members and visitors to our local congregations will be warmly received and feel the love and support of our faith communities. This extends to elders and sisters returning home and adjusting to life after their missions regardless of the duration of their service or personal circumstances," said Cody Craynor, LDS Church spokesman.

A surprising and curious part of the study is what Doty and her students learned about the parents of ERMs. 

Since their child's infancy, many parents have prepared for the day when their son or daughter leave as a full-time missionary. 

Most LDS kids have been in life-long missionary prep. They have saved money, have sung Primary songs about being missionaries, about going on missions and about being the modern day Stripling Warriors, who are spoken of in the Book of Mormon. They listened in Sunday School, Seminary and Scouts. They earned Duty to God Awards and Young Women Medallions with an eye narrowed to the day they would open their call with their family surrounding them and see the satisfaction on their parent's faces. 

No parent anticipates that dream will fade as personal issues with their child arise. No parent anticipates the time they must meet their child at the airport before his or her time is through.

"There was amazing themes of grief and loss from the parents. They grieve the loss of growth and maturity their children could have had with a full-term mission."

What the missionaries needed was to be fortified when they came home, but the private guilt and the silent unspoken pressure often remained a black cloud many years after. The survey indicated the uncomfortable situations of being with peers when missions are discussed and other regular life moments that bring back bad memories are nearly constant.

According to Doty, LDS Family Services has counselors to help ERMs find their way back. Those taking the survey said most found help in speaking to counselors or taking anti-depressants with the caveat that those therapists didn't try to push "getting back out there."

Doty said the team for the project included Zach Bullock, Thomas Ash, Heather Hirsche, Kimball Reeves and James Westwood, all seniors at UVU. Statistical consulting was give by Russell T. Warne. Doty anticipates this is just the first phase of what could be a two year or more study as more nuances and younger missionaries may start facing that early return home.

-- Genelle Pugmire covers Provo City, Provo School District, Orem City, UDOT’s I-15 CORE Project. She also tackles variety of other topics including business features. You can contact Genelle at

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