After volunteering as an LDS missionary in Norway for 13 months, Tristan Polanski decided to end his mission 11 months early after dealing with relentless insomnia. He was nervous to come home, not knowing how he’d be received.
Polanski, now home for nearly three years, remembered that his mother cried and his father didn’t have much to say. He was not asked to speak during church services, even though traditionally, returned missionaries speak to their congregations about their mission experiences upon arrival home.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be awesome or anything, people weren’t going to throw me a party,” Polanski said, “but it was like a total freeze out.”
Polanski thought that if more people knew why he had decided to end his mission early, they might be more sympathetic.
“I was just so tired all the time,” he said. “I would fall asleep standing up on the buses and my brain got all foggy during lessons. My whole body ached from sleep deprivation. If you’ve never had to go without sleep for long periods of time you just can’t get it. It was the worst.”
Even when Polanski tried to explain his decision, he found that people questioned his faith, believing that if he’d had enough faith, God would have provided him a way.
“It’s not like they told me I was faithless, but I could see it in their faces,” Polanski said. “They’d get this look like, ‘yeah okay sure’ and ask me if I prayed for help like I’m an idiot or something.”
Recognizing a trend of social and emotional difficulties facing those like Polanski, who have returned early from their LDS missions, Dr. Kristine Doty, a professor of social work, spent the last two years studying the root of the problem.
Doty assembled a team of five student researchers to help her collect data on the experience of early returned missionaries.
The researchers found after surveying 348 early returned missionaries that 74 percent of participants had feelings of failure and 65 percent were uncomfortable in social settings due to their early releases.
A common misconception is that missionaries return home because of a lack of worthiness to serve prior to the mission, meaning they did not live up to the standards of missionary service, or that they broke mission rules.
According to Doty’s research, only 17 percent of those surveyed said they were unworthy to serve, while only 11 percent were sent home for breaking mission rules.
One of the survey questions in Doty’s research asked about how they felt they were received after coming home early. It was reported that 58 percent felt their fellow church members received them poorly or with indifference, while 33 percent felt that friends treated them similarly.
For Doty, the most disturbing response was that 31 percent of those surveyed said they felt that their family members received them poorly or with indifference.
“Anything above zero percent is too high a number when it comes to friends or family, especially family,” Doty said.
Polanski recalled how he felt that his family and friends responded to his return.
“It was weird with my friends because all my buddies were either still on their missions or about to leave,” Polanski said. “It was super awkward. But when it came to my family I could tell my parents were upset. It really bugged me because my mom kept talking about how she must have messed me up. Eventually I just had to realize it was her struggle and there were only so many times I could tell her it wasn’t her fault.”
In response to the perceived negative reception, the study showed that 34 percent of those who returned early went through a period of inactivity in the church. One third of those never returned to activity.
One of the returned missionaries interviewed for the survey said that he felt he needed a means of escape. He chose to take a job on Sundays so he wouldn’t have to answer questions about his early homecoming.
“The pain just kind of resolved itself,” he said. “I became someone who just wasn’t known anymore in that ward. They just didn’t expect me [to come] anymore. Things died down and that was nice.”
Those who felt that they had a positive reception by family, friends and church members had a decrease in feelings of failure and either did not experience a time of inactivity or it was much shorter than those who felt they were received negatively.
The researchers found that those who felt that they had a negative reception had difficulty providing concrete examples of the perceived disapproval.
“Their perception is their reality. It’s difficult to say to them ‘it’s just your imagination.’ This is their reality,” Doty said.
The feelings of failure and unworthiness after coming home were not evenly distributed. Those who came home due to mental or physical health concerns, or worthiness issues had increased feelings of failure. Missionaries who returned due to family issues or lacked personal testimony had decreased feelings of failure.
For Garth Hanson, a former mission president in Romania, the ostracizing of early returning missionaries is one of his greatest frustrations.
“Whenever I had [missionaries] that needed to go home early, for whatever reason, my heart worried over them all the time,” Hanson said. “I worried about how they felt about themselves. I worried about how their parents would react. I worried over how they would be treated. I knew what a sensitive situation they were in and I knew that the situation was prime for them to fall away.”
From the research Doty noted that the best way to make a social change is to allow these returned missionaries the opportunity to feel at liberty to tell their stories.
Doty noted that some of those interviewed said that this was their first opportunity to tell their stories from beginning to end.
“Therapists need to create a safe environment for them to tell their story,” she said. “A really important component for therapists is to allow the client the opportunity to take it the way they want to go.”
In addition to this, Doty said that it is essential that the ward leadership be trained to create a positive environment for these missionaries.
“It needs to be socially acceptable to not serve the full two years. I’m not saying it’s something we should encourage or promote,” Doty said. “But we need to make it acceptable for whatever amount of service people can give; that it’s enough.
They need to feel confidant in referring to themselves as returned missionaries.”
In response to the study, LDS Church Spokesperson Cody Craynor issued a statement encouraging members to reach out to early-returning missionaries.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”