Interesting article from Russell Arben Fox (his writing is always thoughtful and well-written, so I highly recommend him):
I have no idea if more missionaries are coming home early or not, as I’m not really plugged into the culture anymore. My nephew is on a mission in Europe and has not suffered from any of the issues Fox mentions; of course, he left at age 19. I have a few friends and acquaintances with sons on missions, and I haven’t heard anything from them that would suggest higher numbers of missionaries going home early, but for this discussion, it doesn’t really matter. (I should note that my wife and I have good friends whose daughters returned early from their missions for reasons similar to those Fox describes, but he’s specifically talking about young men, so I’ll stick with that.)
When the church announced the change in age, my first thought was that the church must have seen increasing numbers of young men abandoning mission plans in the year or so between high school graduation and reaching age 19. That was just a guess, as I have no evidence, not even anecdotal, to support that initial impression. But it stands to reason that the cultural pressure to serve a mission combined with living under their parents’ supervision would increase the odds that a boy would choose to serve a mission. I have said before that I thought the numbers of young men leaving on missions would spike the first couple of years after the change and then fall back to a number that is still higher than it was before the change; the main increase will be in young women deciding to serve.
Not long after the announcement, my parents visited us, and they mentioned that one of the young men from their ward in California was heading out on a mission within weeks of high school graduation, and this got them talking about the age change. (I should mention that my mother is a very devout member of the LDS church, and my father is perhaps less an orthodox believer than most members, but he is nevertheless a believer.)
Both of my parents said that they thought their bishop had acted irresponsibly in approving this boy for a mission, as he was quite immature and very dependent on his parents for emotional and financial support. They also said they thought that boys needed that year away from home to, in my dad’s words, “figure out how to live as an independent adult.” Without that year, they said, boys would be unprepared for missionary life. (To be fair, they tend to see LDS missions through the lens of my missionary experience in Bolivia, which of course is not the norm.) They predicted that a lot of these unprepared missionaries would return home early for the same types of reasons Fox mentions. I was probably too shocked at their opinions to really say much, so I don’t think I did.
I’m not sure what to believe about this. I look back on my own life and wonder if the 18 months I had between high school graduation (I was 17 at the time) and the MTC made much of a difference in my preparation. I think the main benefit of that time was that I learned to take care of myself and my responsibilities without being able to depend on anyone else. I couldn’t leave my laundry for my mom to wash, and no one was there to remind me to do my homework. I was responsible for myself. That said, my parents were paying my school and living expenses, so I just had to learn to live within the budget I had, though I knew I could count on them if I had a financial emergency.
These were important lessons for me, as on my mission I was equally responsible for taking care of my responsibilities as a missionary and my personal needs. I remember early on realizing that my companion and I were alone in a small town in the altiplano, and the only time we had any contact with other missionaries was at our weekly zone meetings. We had no phone or any other way of being contacted, unless the zone leaders decided to take the bus out to our town and visit us in person. I thought at the time that we could have done whatever we wanted, and no one would know. We could have faked our numbers (hours worked, discussions taught, and so on), and no one would have been the wiser. I thought it said something about me and my companion that we didn’t do anything like that. We worked hard, and we were disciplined, even when no one was watching.
Would I have done the same had I not had that 18th-month interval? Probably. So, as Fox mentions, it’s not sin, financial reasons, or disobedience that I learned to avoid during that period. I’m left to wonder if being on my own got the homesickness and the inability to handle stress out of the way before I served my mission. I don’t know, honestly. I had companions who had not had a year away from home before their missions, and they didn’t seem much different from me.
The other possibility, it seems to me, is that the numbers of kids coming home early is higher simply because the number of missionaries going out is higher. Only the church’s Missionary Department knows whether the rate of early returns is higher or not. I’ll simply say that I agree with my parents that a year of “adulthood,” such as it is, is almost always beneficial for a young man (or young woman) before committing to something as stressful as a mission, and the current practice probably does mean that boys are going out who are not prepared to live on their own, let alone deal with the stress of a mission.
I am happy to hear that these kids are coming home without the social stigma that was attached to leaving early when I was a missionary. Fox describes it pretty well:
Still, I suppose I can’t quite shake the attitude which shaped my own understanding of being a missionary as I grew up in the 70s and 80s, that understanding basically being summed up as “Come home honorably or come home in a coffin.” (I don’t remember every being told that in exactly those words, but I do recall my mother telling me quite straightforwardly that she wouldn’t acknowledge any son of hers returning early, since of course such a person would have to be an imposter–her real children would never give up.)
My parents never said anything like that to me, and I knew that my parents would have supported me had I come home early for any reason; in fact, my father was quite shocked when I decided to extend my 18-month mission to 24 months. When I called home to ask for their support, he said, “Why would you want to do something like that?” So, it wouldn’t have been bad for me among my family members, but I understood that, socially speaking, it would have been much worse to come home from a mission early than it would have been not to serve a mission in the first place. I will simply echo Fox in saying that if this new acceptance is a trend, I’m delighted. The last thing these kids need is to feel bad about recognizing that they weren’t a “good fit,” as Fox puts it. Perhaps this more accepting attitude means that a lot of members understand that many younger boys aren’t ready for missions and shouldn’t be judged harshly for it.
It will be interesting to see what Fox’s readers report about what they see in their wards and stakes.