Just days before his flight left Russia to return home to Utah in August 2013, Elder Wayne Owens was serving in his last assignment in the Russia Vladivostok Mission. He was wrapping up his two-year missionary service and had just had one of the most memorable weeks of his life.
“There was this wonderful family; we had taught the husband and his wife, and they got baptized the Monday before I left,” he said. “I can’t think of a more perfect ending to a mission.”
For Elder Owens, that was the best night of his entire mission.
Later that week he packed his bags for the final time and headed to the mission home where he, along with other missionaries returning home, spent time with their mission president and his wife. The missionaries couldn’t help but reflect on their missionary service.
“It was really neat to talk with my mission president,” he said. “He saw a lot of [my] transformation. He knew the ‘before’ and ‘after’ and gave me a lot of encouragement and helped me to see some of the fruits of my mission.”
In private, they talked about the growth he had experienced, about the skills and habits he had developed. They talked about future plans and discussed rules to live by. The young missionary felt good about the service he had rendered, and felt he had learned what really matters in life — that happiness and holiness go together — and how to work hard. Leaving on such a high note made traveling home from Russia hard.
“It is heartbreaking to leave the people you love,” the young man said. “When I first saw San Francisco from the plane, my heart sank.”
Just under a year and a half ago, President Thomas S. Monson announced a change to the age requirement of men and women participating in missionary service. According to a recent report issued by the First Presidency of the church, there are 80,000 missionaries serving in 405 missions around the world. Never before have there been so many missionaries out serving, causing the number of recently returning missionaries to grow over the next year.
Although missionaries know the gospel and have exhausted their days sharing it with others, sometimes their return home can be an adjustment, leaving a different view on life with the “new and improved” version of them returning home to oftentimes the same situation that they left.
“I think that is the hardest thing about coming back — finding out how your new self can fit,” the young man who recently was known as “Elder Owens” said. “That first month I tiptoed back into the social scene. After sacrificing two years — which really isn’t a sacrifice, becoming way, way better — it would be such a waste to throw that back.”
A parting gift
For many, a mission is a time of spiritual growth, filled with gaining knowledge, good habits and skills. Missionaries have been taught by their mission president, and have learned how to serve the Lord and dedicate their lives.
Before missionaries return home they have an exit interview with their mission presidents. While each experience is different because of the personal nature of the interview, it is a time for mission presidents to share their “parting advice” and counsel their missionaries one last time. It is also an opportunity to reflect with each missionary about the changes they experienced and how their conversion to the Lord has deepened, and to talk to them about their future.
“Throughout their missions, I talk to the missionaries frequently about their future roles as fathers and mothers, husbands and wives,” said President Jordan Clements of the Minnesota Minneapolis Mission. “For example, during a [recent] zone conference in which I addressed goal setting and planning, I described the vital role these skills play in their future success as husbands and wives and as parents.”
Whether it is talking about work plans, education plans or goals for the future, President Clements said that with some of his missionaries the guidance and counsel he shares is very personal and specific.
“During our interview, I’ll also discuss weaknesses that the missionaries may have struggled with prior to the mission, and how they will build appropriate fortifications in their lives to ensure that they never go back,” he said.
President Matthew Riggs of the Washington D.C. South Mission gives each of his missionaries a letter prior to returning home. This “parting gift” shares heartfelt counsel discussing patterns the missionary has established on his or her mission that President Riggs hopes they will continue to live at home. He addresses many topics: planning, studying, testimony, goals, service, temple attendance, education and marriage. He also addresses budgeting, entertainment and grooming — all topics that quickly approach a returned missionary.
With good habits already established and advice from a wise mission president, missionaries seem to be set for success upon their return. But sometimes the transition is not so smooth, as newly returned missionaries learn to navigate their more refined selves in the life they left 18 or 24 months earlier.
In general conference of May 1999, President Gordon B. Hinckley gave the counsel that every new convert needs three things: a friend, an assignment and to be “nourished by the good word of God.” Just as new converts making commitments to progress in the gospel, returning missionaries can apply the same principles they used with the people they taught on their mission as a guide when they return home and adjust to their new schedule.
Although he had missed the first week of school, Wayne quickly caught up as he jumped into his classes and started life as a student at Utah State University. He signed up for early classes — beginning at 7:30 a.m. two days a week and 8:30 a.m. two days a week — and began working a part-time job while living with a few other returned missionaries.
“In some respects it was pretty wild because I didn’t get to see my family hardly, and then I was right off, but I think in a lot of ways it was good, too,” he said. “It felt like another transfer on my mission — going to a place I had never lived before in a new environment with new people — I think it was really good for me. It would have been pretty easy to kind of slip back two years if I were just hanging out at home with the same friends and environment. I think that [quickly going to school] saved some of the growth that came.”
Not all missionaries have the immediate transition to school with an opportunity to quickly meet new friends and welcome a new social scene. And, drastically cutting ties with old friends isn’t always the best option. However, it is through being aware of surroundings — the people, situations and influences — that missionaries must recognize and constantly evaluate.
Wayne said that he has been very careful of his living arrangements — living with people that have his same standards — and tries to stay away from environments that aren’t good. He has given himself a curfew, and makes time to go to the temple — often with his older brother. For him, it is about choosing to associate with people who are a positive influence and making an effort to continue to keep the good habits he learned on his mission.
Depending on where missionaries return home, they may head to a large singles ward, or to a small family branch. Sometimes it takes time for a calling. Sometimes the calling is something they have never done. No matter the situation, a willingness to serve will help returning missionaries keep their testimonies strong as well as help in their units.
“As they come home they have an opportunity to talk with their bishops and I encourage [bishops] to be ready to issue an opportunity to serve,” said President Bryant A. Baker of the Charlotte North Carolina Central Stake. “I see if the missionary is planning to attend the young single adult ward or a family ward — both have opportunities to serve — and each of those wards can offer those opportunities.”
In the Charlotte North Carolina Central Stake there is a young single adult ward, a Spanish branch and other family wards. President Baker has seen how strong and faithful returned missionaries have helped ward members — no matter the type of church unit they attend.
“I’ve seen [newly returned missionaries] in positions where they have opportunity to work with young men preparing for missions, [some] are able to continue with missionary work by being a ward missionary or in the elders quorum and, in a few instances, we have them serving in leadership capacities,” President Baker said.
Two young men who have gone out from the Spanish branch have returned and have since been married. One is serving in the branch presidency and one is serving as Young Men president.
“They are setting the pattern for young men and young women,” he said. “Adults respect them in those callings and sustain them. It is good to have a ward that is accepting to have the younger single members and young married couples serving in these capacities.”
President Baker, who joined the church as a young adult after being invited to institute — the same institute building that is in his stake boundaries — knows firsthand the influence of faithful Latter-day Saints.
“People often think of young single adult wards mainly as a venue to get young single adults together,” he said. “They are so much more. The central purpose of that is the same as it is for any ward or branch — to proclaim the gospel. Our young single adults understand that, and so much success comes from reaching out.”
Nourished by the good word of God
As Elder Owens was leaving the mission field, one of the most important topics his mission president counseled him on was scripture study.
“He made us promise that we would read the Book of Mormon at least five minutes a day,” the returned missionary said. “Beyond anything else, if we keep reading the Book of Mormon every day we will be OK.”
When asked if he has kept that promise, he quickly answered, “Absolutely.”
Just as a new convert finds strength in diving into the scriptures, one of the most important transitions home is making the scriptures a part of everyday life.
President Riggs tells his missionaries, “You will likely never study the scriptures as much as you have on your mission. This doesn’t mean you will stop receiving revelation or that you should just stop reading altogether. You should study each day for a sufficient amount of time to have a revelatory experience. It can be 15 minutes or 45 minutes. I try to plan sufficient time so the Spirit can reach me.”
In his counsel, President Riggs also points out that the missionary is a different person than he or she was before entering the mission field, “becoming” something much more than they were before they arrived. He also recognizes that the counsel might not be easy to follow, but as they follow the teachings every effort they make will be worth it.
The transformation that takes place in a short year and a half or two years can be life altering, and set the stage for the rest of the missionaries’ lives — if they let it.
“We love the missionaries with all our hearts and see them as sacred instruments through whom the Lord has worked many mighty miracles,” President Clements said. “We feel blessed to serve with them. We are eyewitnesses to the miracles the Lord works in their lives as they faithfully serve Him. The greatest miracles I’ve observed in my life have been the transformation over two years or eighteen months of a halting, hesitant, yet faithful young teenager [or young adult] into a powerful man or woman of Christ.”
As missionaries apply the skills and counsel given to them on their missions, they are able to stay faithful as they make the transition home and establish habits for the rest of their lives.
“My mission isn’t the most spiritual point of my life,” Wayne Owens said. “It is a springboard. More than anything it helped me understand what life is really all about, and that real joy comes from helping others. It’s not about yourself, and there is joy in pursuing holiness and discipleship.”