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Returning with Honor

by Kristen Reber

Originally published December 13, 2013

“As missionaries we’re always told to return with honor. Since I came home early, I don’t know if I can.”

This was said by Samuel Adams in a 60-minute film he wrote, directed, and produced independently in 2006 called Returning with Honor . His statement echoes with many other missionaries who come home early, even if they are released with honor.

Samuel Adams served in the Philppines Bacolod Mission, which was at the time he served, combined with the Philippines Iloilo Mission where I served. He came home early because he was sick, but he was the only one who believed he was sick. The doctors in the Philippines and in the USA could not detect anything physically wrong with him. He was called a faker and told that it was all in his head. When he came home, his homecoming was lukewarm. Although his parents loved him, they did not understand what he was going through and did not understand why he couldn’t just “snap out of it.” Samuel became extremely frustrated and decided to figure out what was wrong with him. He rode his bike from Portland to San Francisco to both push his body to see if anything was wrong with him, to “find himself,” and to give himself a purpose again in life.

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On his journey to San Francisco, Samuel could eat barely anything except cliff bars and gatorade and soon his money ran out. He encountered more and more trials and at one point in the film screamed in frustration, “Why can’t anything go right?!” I think early-returned missionaries often feel this way, particularly those that come home for physical or mental illnesses. Why can’t anything go right?

The movie is raw with the negative emotions of coming home early: confusion, guilt, frustration, anger, self-reflection, pondering, and faith. Faith is what Samuel Adams held onto to keep him going on his trip and at that time in his life. Although Samuel felt very frustrated at God for not protecting him as a missionary, for allowing him to become sick, when he had only been doing God’s work, he never gave up on his testimony that God was there and that he was mindful of Samuel, however distant God seemed at the time.

Throughout the movie, Samuel shared his testimony with his viewers, often after showing a hardship he went through on his trip or when he recalls thoughts he had during his mission or upon coming home. I loved the faith he expresses. As one who has gone through the struggle of coming home early and being okay and being able to look back with different perspective, his words really resonated with me. I’d like to share them now with anyone reading this blog, but especially those who came home early:

  • “I don’t know what the purpose of suffering is except that when we’re not suffering, life is pretty good. And if it’s only for the reason that we can know the difference between pain and pleasure, maybe it’s worth it.”
  • “It’s a miracle that I’m even alive. I had been bitter for so long. Why didn’t God take care of me? One of his own missionaries that was trying so hard. I thought so many times of things that I could blame it on, things that I wasn’t doing good enough. I put so much guilt and stress upon my body because of that. Sometimes we don’t get prayers answered fast enough in our minds. I had no idea that my prayers were being answered. I just didn’t realize how big of a miracle would have to happen in order to get what I wanted or thought I needed at that very moment.”
  • “When I was little I had a friend with a lot of challenges. He said God was a jerk, and I thought about that for a long time. God’s just a really good father. Like any good father, he loves us. He looks at our potential and knows what we can become. He doesn’t look at all of our mistakes and all of our  weaknesses, but he uses our weaknesses to help us become stronger. He pushes us, and picks us up when we can’t go any farther.”
  • “People ask me a lot about my mission and if it was hard to come home early and it was. But over time it came to me that I did my best. I put forth all the effort I possibly could to the best of my ability and that brought me a lot of peace.”

Honorable releases are nice, and they certainly do mean something wonderful. I think that’s why in LDS culture we put so much emphasis on our missionaries to come home with honor. But unfortunately, sometimes those that should have been released honorably are not because as humans we don’t equate coming home early with returning honorably. Not being released honorably adds immensely to the guilt that missionaries feel upon returning home early. Sometimes guilt can be a good thing; it can be a call to action for many. But I personally believe that in the case of coming home early, for anything other than knowingly going against mission rules or sinning, guilt is unnecessary and useless. And for those that came home early because of a mistake, but who have repented and been forgiven, continued guilt is useless.

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Honorable release or not, missionaries that come home early are good people. Even those that come home early because they’ve made a mistake. We all make mistakes, but unfortunately for those that come home early because of one their mistakes are in a spotlight to everyone else. I believe that returning with honor to God after this life is more important than returning home with honor from a mission. God knows our hearts and He knows what really happened at each difficult time in our life. I think Samuel is exactly right when he tells his viewers:

“Sometimes when things happen that are unexpected, they’re considered bad. We just go on and on thinking why did this happen to me? Why right now? Why at this time?…Sometimes things  happen to people in life and they can’t understand why. They just keep asking why. A person can make themselves crazy always asking why. It’s really hard to do. Sometimes you gotta look ahead. and it’s only after, maybe only years after, that you realize why it was so good for it to happen to you at that time.”

Even missionaries that “finish” do not always feel successful

by Kristen and James Reber

Originally published December 13, 2013

For a long time, even up to a year after I came home from my mission early, I thought that missionaries that had been able to finish their expected amount of time had no problems–that they were able to easily put their missions behind them and look back with fond memories. Of course, I knew they’d had hard times too, but I thought that the mere fact that they had been able to finish their missions would help them leave those hard times in the past and only recall the good times. Therefore, I was surprised one day when a friend who had finished his two years said, “There are days when I still look back and wonder, did I really do all I could do? I still feel like I failed in so many ways.”

I was also surprised when my husband, James, told me that he often looked back on his mission and felt like a failure. He struggled with depression during his mission, but was completely unaware of what he was suffering until a year or so later. Last week James came to me and said he had written something and that I could post it on my blog if I wanted. I read the following post, and immediately wanted to publish it. This is for anyone who feels like they failed their mission, whether you came home early or finished the expected amount of time:

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James on his mission in Minnesota

My name is James. I have been home from my mission for six years and I still feel like a failure. 

By all outsider views, my mission was “successful.” I served the full two years; I never had any rule infractions; never sloughed off work; always tried to be a missionary like the greats of the early church days; always tried to talk to every person I saw. 

But I still feel like my mission was a failure. I still try not to think about my mission, still feel overwhelmed at the thought of speaking my mission language, still feel anxious and fearful about emailing the one person I taught who joined the church and remained faithful.

Why do I still struggle with my mission after six years? Why has time not healed all wound? Since my mission, I have learned that I suffer from anxiety and depression. Looking back, I see that anxiety and depression tinged every moment of my mission. “Just go talk to that person, Elder, and it will get easier.” It never got easier – no matter how many people I contacted on the street, I was always terrified of that next person. “You’ve been in a slump, Elder; you can work harder. Does your attitude need changing?” At the time, I thought I had a bad attitude. I now see that I was feeling the withdrawal and crushing weight of depression.

I’ve realized all this in hindsight, but at the time, I had no idea about depression and anxiety. I thought I was being lazy, I thought I was not living up to my calling as a representative of the Church. I thought that if I just lost myself and got to work, I would suddenly be amazing – no more of this pathetic attitude holding me back!

 

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James with a friend he taught on his mission

When I came home from my mission, I felt like I had nothing to show for my time. I served a full two years but I don’t describe them as my best two years. Even now, I am afraid of interacting with other returned missionaries who spoke my mission language. I could practice my mission language with my sister but I get overwhelmed by the thought. I could email the man I saw baptized but I am scared to do so. I have no idea why I am scared to email a friend from the mission; for some reason, I still can’t handle anything related to my mission, even after six years of being home.

 

For those of you who have come home early, or who served the full time but still feel like failures, please know that you are not alone. If you struggle to read your mission journal, if you actively avoid thinking about your mission, you are not alone.

Know that you can heal from the hurt and disappointment and feelings of failure. It took me six years, but that was largely because I didn’t know about my mental health issues. I am doing better every day.

James really is doing better with his clinical depression and anxiety every day. Of course, there are days when it is harder for him to cope with them, but largely, he is doing better.

Finishing a mission does not automatically result in feelings of victory and success.  And that is okay! A finished mission does not always mean it was a “successful” mission. Or, a successful mission does not always mean the missionary will feel that it was a successful one. As missionaries, we tend to judge ourselves by pretty harsh personal standards, always believing that we can do better. While believing that you can do better is motivating for some, for others it can be very debilitating and lead to emotional and mental health issues.

Here’s my take: you were successful if you did the best you could. You may not always feel like you did the best you could, and maybe you didn’t. I know that I didn’t always feel like I did my best, especially before I realized how sick I was, and I know there were days when I had a genuinely bad attitude. But as I continued to face my mission again and again over the course of these two and a half years, I have realized how common and normal those feelings are. My feelings about my mission have gotten better, and I have felt peace about my mission. It may not look like a success in some respects, just as James’s mission doesn’t look like a success in some respects–neither one of us had as high of numbers as Paul or Ammon or any other largely successful missionary; really our numbers were more like Isaiah’s–but both were successes in the Lord’s eyes. I encourage you to seek that peace from the Lord if you are struggling to look back on your mission with anything other than fear or sorrow. You likely did better than you are giving yourself credit.

Also, I want to add, and James echoes this, that if you came home early because of mental health reasons, rejoice that you are aware of your illness now rather than later. James had so much to work through when he came home. He’s said to me time and time again that those that come home early for mental health reasons are luckier than him because they were aware of what was going on and could get the help they needed. You are not a failure for having a mental illness, nor are you a failure for not being able to “push through it.” You did the right thing in coming home early and getting help.

I Didn’t Love My Mission. What Does That Say About Me?

by Kristen Reber

Originally published December 28, 2013

When I came home early from my mission I went through a period of adjustment that perhaps wasn’t too far off of what most returned missionaries go through. I went through a cycle of feelings that ranged from sad to relieved to depressed to happy to guilty. It was a bit of a vicious cycle. I was relieved to be home from my mission, but I felt so guilty for coming home early. I felt like I had let others down, and even worse like I had let Heavenly Father down.

Missions are interesting things. So often we hear in church culture that missions are the best two years of one’s life, or the best years for one’s life–it just depends on who you talk to. For me, two and a half years later looking back, I can’t say either, but I do not look back on my mission with resentment, fear, or guilt anymore. I’m not happy I went on a mission, but I’m not upset about it either. There have been blessings that have come from my service that have taken awhile to see, but those blessings may have come in other ways too. Then again, I’m not sure how I would be friends with anyone in the Philippines right now had it not been for my mission.

One thing in particular that I really struggled with when I came home, and that was how very happy missionaries that had “completed” their missions seemed. Surely, I thought, they had hard times on their missions too. Surely, they had days they didn’t want to be on a mission anymore. And I was probably right. Indeed, the more I have talked to those that completed their missions, the more I realize that what I went through on my mission, apart from the two parasites, was really quite normal. So then why was I “chosen” to come home early instead of someone else? I’m still not sure, but I don’t dwell on that question anymore.

I’m not sure why people hide the hard parts of their missions, never really write home about them, or talk about them. It may be a cultural thing. I certainly remember feeling like I should only write about the happy parts of my mission. I also felt like when I came home I had to lie and say that I loved my mission, or at least say it was a wonderful learning experience (and it was, but the emotional side of my brain always wanted to omit the word “wonderful”). I felt this was especially important when talking to a parent of a son or daughter serving a mission in a third-world country: if I didn’t end my mission story by saying “I loved it,” worry would be etched onto their faces.

I remember when people wanted me to tell stories from my mission and how my mission was really the last thing I wanted to talk about. One time someone told me that I should want to talk about my mission, to inspire others with my story. I was a little on edge that day and I remember curtly telling that person that my mission was not a happy story and quite frankly something that I wanted to forget. That person never asked me to share a mission story again. I’m okay with talking about my mission now, but for that first year after coming home early, it was really hard.

It took me a lot of time to move on–or at least it felt like it did. I guess it’s only been two and a half years since I came home.  What I’ve realized in those two and a half years though, is that it’s OKAY if you struggle to have good feelings about your mission. “Mission are hard” as the mantra goes, but no one really knows quite what “hard” means until they get out on a mission and experience it for themselves. I thought missions were only hard when someone you’d been teaching stopped taking the lessons or you go a whole day without teaching anyone, but those hard parts were the easier hard parts. At least, for me they were. There was also the learning the language, getting used to the culture, and getting along with my companion. You hear about those too.  More than those things though, it’s sometimes hard to just get out of bed, to feel like going out again that day, and to just be happy. Those are the hard parts of the mission that no one really talks about, probably because they fear they’ll get a letter saying, “Forget yourself and go to work,” which wouldn’t help anyways because that is exactly what they are trying to do, and are already beating themselves up for having a supposedly bad attitude anyways.

Missions are not always those smiling missionary pictures that you see in LDS bookstores or magazines. In fact, I’d say those smiling pictures are more of the exception than the norm. I had those days where it was a smiling day, but more often my mission was really hard, and I’m willing to bet that the hard days are more the norm than the smiling days. I don’t know what it’s like to serve a mission all the way to the end of the expected time. I imagine that it’s really much the same as the beginning except that you get more into a routine. Perhaps it really does get better. Perhaps there is more joy towards the end. I don’t know.

But I do know this: missions are very good things for many reasons; they are not always right for everyone though and that is okay. The church is true and the gospel needs to be shared, and missions are an effective way to share the gospel. The missionary program certainly should continue, but there needs to be more open communication about what missions are like, and what individual missionaries go through. For some, I have no doubt that it was the best two years of their life, or the best two years for their life. For others though, it wasn’t, and although they may not regret going on a mission and never will, they are glad it is over and that they can move on to something else. They are still strong, faithful members that share the gospel in other ways.

So this is my plea: be honest about your mission experience. Be tactful about it, of course, but be honest about the hard times you had. Be willing to let others share their hard times. Encourage friends or family members on missions to talk about their hard times, and don’t judge them for their hard times. I think many missionaries don’t write about hard times for fear of getting that, “Forget yourself and go to work letter.” And for some missionaries, I think that letter would be exactly right. Some do have a bad attitude and need the push. But for most, I think they are feeling the normal tiredness of a day-in-day-out routine and could use some encouragement and cheering up, and maybe just a safe environment to talk in, and then they can “forget themselves and go to work” without anyone telling them to do so.

And for those of you that did love your mission, continue to share what you loved about it, and how you came to love it, but be mindful of those that may not share your same enthusiasm. Be aware of your friends who are struggling and remember what you did to help yourself love your mission: the personal habits you developed before leaving that helped you love your mission so much, or the habits you developed on your mission that helped you not want to leave when your time came.

Missions are wonderful things. Now let’s help them be wonderful for the missionaries. And remember, if you didn’t love your mission, that’s okay. Remember the good, but acknowledge the bad and know that it’s okay to do so.

Update, October 5, 2017:

Today (almost four years since originally writing this post) I would add that I still wouldn’t say the six months I served were the best six months of my life, or that they were the best six months for my life, but they were definitely not bad for my life. I grew a lot in those six months. Serving a mission is never a bad thing, and how long you serve is ultimately between you and the Lord. The emotions a missionary experiences while on their mission are real, raw, and okay, even if the feelings are that of annoyance, fatigue, or even sadness. Missions are hard. They are a labor of love, but you do not always love your mission.

Stay Home or Go Back Out?

by Kristen Danner Reber

Originally published March 16, 2014

When a missionary comes home early, the decision to stay home or to go back out becomes paramount. For some, the decision will be clear-cut: they will immediately know which path is right. For others, the decision will be rather difficult. And still for others they may know which path they want to take but struggle knowing whether or not that path is the right one for them to take. Or, they may know which path is right but struggle with that knowledge because it may not be the path they want to take.

I’d like to talk to all four of these types of missionaries, and anyone who is trying to help someone they know and love in this situation. Real quick, if you are trying to help, the best thing you can do is to not put any pressure on your missionary to make a decision one way or the other. Perhaps you think you know what is best for that missionary, and maybe you do. However, the only people that really know what is best is God and that missionary and inspired priesthood leaders. Beware of making your missionary feel that he or she must choose a certain path in order to make you happy. Accept whatever path they choose. Realize too that either choice was probably a difficult one. Also, there may be things going on that you are unaware of.

For instance, I have a friend that came home early for medical reasons, but chose not to go back out after he had recovered because of how harshly he was treated by others in the field. He was called lazy, told his heart wasn’t really in the work, told he was faking it, and eventually when he asked to be sent home, he was called a quitter by his mission president. According to the doctor he met when he came home, the illness that he asked to go home for would have killed him had he stayed on his mission even two weeks longer. When he recovered from his illness, he had no desire to return. He was too angry at those who had mistreated him, and too scared that something similar would happen to him again. He lost friends for his decision. He struggled with his testimony. He met with a counselor to overcome the anxiety that developed from the incident. He had had every desire to serve and do the Lord’s work before becoming sick, but now he felt so frightened every time he thought about returning to the mission field. People didn’t understand him. He decided not to return to the mission field. I don’t know if he prayed about his decision or not, but I imagine that he did. Even if he didn’t though, he deserved love, respect, and understanding.

Another missionary that I’ve become acquainted with, told me that she came home early for medical reasons, knew immediately that she wanted to go back out, recovered, went back out, then was hit by a vehicle, and sent home again. She struggled with knowing whether or not she was supposed to be on a mission. She wondered if she had not been a good enough missionary and if that‘s why she had been sent home twice. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go back out. She decided to go back to school, but after doing everything she could to prepare for school, felt unsettled about returning. She read her scriptures, prayed, and started changing her prayers from “Which path should I take?” to “Is there still work for me to do in the mission field?” She then made the decision to go back again, prayed and asked if it was right, and felt peace. She has since been making preparations to return. She is still nervous that she will get sick or hurt and have to come home again, but she knows she still has more work to do. She has decided to follow the Spirit and do what she knows is right for her.

My story can be read in detail by clicking here. I’ll summarize it by saying that when I returned, I prayed and prayed to know which path was right for me, and the answer that kept coming back was that either path was right. It eventually came down to the one that I wanted to do. And I had to admit that deep down, I wanted to go back to school. I did not want to return to my mission. Although I had had some good times on my mission, most of it had been emotionally challenging for me and there was the fear of getting sick again. Plus, I really just wanted to go back to school. I felt guilty for not wanting to go back on my mission, but then again, I’d been told that either path was right. I counseled with my stake president, went to the temple, read my scriptures, and prayed. I did everything I could to make sure that whatever path I chose was the right one. Looking back now, I am glad that I went back to school because I don’t think I was emotionally ready at all to go back on my mission. I think I had several things I needed to heal from besides my illness. I also think that if I had chosen to go back on my mission, God would have strengthened me that I would have been able to complete it. There was no right or wrong. God blessed me for returning to school, just as he would have blessed me for returning on my mission.

I think there is often the expectation for missionaries that come home early that as soon as they get better or “figure things out,” they ought to go back out on their missions. Particularly for young men, who are told that they have a priesthood duty to complete their missions. Indeed, President Thomas S. Monson said, “Missionary service is a priesthood duty—an obligation the Lord expects of us who have been given so very much.” (see President Monson’s talk from October 2010 General Conference here). However, please note that President Monson said, missionary service is a priesthood duty, not completing a mission, and not even going on a mission, although I echo what he says that “every worthy, able young man should prepare to serve a mission” (from which I assume he means full-time mission). Missionary service can be done in many, many capacities and the Church is starting to make more of an effort to let members know about the other options for missionary service rather than full-time proselyting missions.

I encourage anyone that is trying to make the decision about whether or not to return to the mission field to pray, read their scriptures, talk to priesthood leaders, and go to the temple if possible. I encourage you to search your heart to know what your inmost desire regarding the decision is. Then, I encourage you to make a decision and take your decision to the Lord. If your decision is right, I promise you that you will feel the Spirit tell you it is right, however the Spirit talks to you. If you have forgotten how the Spirit talks to you, ask the Lord to remind you. Recall a time when you know the Spirit spoke to you. Remember how that felt. Then, follow that prompting. If, like me, you do not get a clear-cut answer, make the decision that you feel is best for you and trust the Lord that He will follow-through on his part and help you in that decision. For more about the Spirit, see Elder Bednar’s talk The Spirit of Revelation.

No matter what your decision is regarding staying home or going back out, no matter what your reason for coming home, know that the Lord loves you, is there for you, and will not abandon you. He is listening and he will make the right path known to you at the right time. If He takes awhile to let you know, don’t get frustrated. Practice patience. As Elder Bednar said in the aforementioned talk, “Both the history of the Church and our personal lives are replete with examples of the Lord’s pattern for receiving revelation ‘line upon line, precept upon precept.’ For example, the fundamental truths of the restored gospel were not delivered to the Prophet Joseph Smith all at once in the Sacred Grove. These priceless treasures were revealed as circumstances warranted and as the timing was right.” He has not forgotten you. He may even be waiting for you to act

Also, know that you are a good person. The feelings of doubt, of worthlessness, of anger, etc. are normal. If you are scared to go back on your mission, or just don’t have any desire to return know that that is normal too. Don’t let these feelings consume you, but do acknowledge them and work through them. Keep reading your scriptures, keep praying, and keep being open to the promptings of the Spirit. The Lord will guide you. It will all be okay. Keep moving forward and one day you’ll be able to look back and see just how much He helped you and blessed you.