Mormon Culture: Transitioning From Mission to Real Life
Coming home from a mission is not as easy as you expect it to be. Sure, you learned how to study and make goals, but missions are extremely structured in a way that life is not.
Psychologist Wendy Ulrich has worked with the LDS Church missionary mental health committee on several projects, such as a booklet called “Adjusting to Missionary Life” and an online program to help missionaries returning home from their missions, called “My Plan.”
Adjusting to missionary life is difficult, but Ulrich said it can be just as hard transitioning back to “normal” life. There are a few reasons for this.
1. You have to make your own plans.
On a mission, you have your schedule laid out for you. You just fill in the gaps with teaching people and various ways of finding people to teach. And often, on missions you were told to not get “trunky” and to not plan for when you go home. “You feel like you surreptitiously have to sneak around and make arrangement for your classes or apartment or a job when you get home,” Ulrich said.
But Ulrich said that is changing. She’s noticed a shift with mission presidents. She said they are now “trying to move from this idea of work till you drop at the end of your mission and don’t even think about anything else” to helping missionaries anticipate the changes. Because when the mission is over, “there’s no mission president waiting for you when you get home to help you with that transition,” she said.
2. Sometimes you face depression or anxiety or maybe just plain confusion
Ulrich said the best thing for return missionaries to do is to seek out resources, like counseling, when they feel like what they’re experiencing is more than they can handle.
But she also said it’s normal to feel a little off. She said that when she talks with groups of missionaries, all the same issues come up.
“I think sometimes the best thing we can do is just open up a little more with other people around us who are dealing with the same issues,” Ulrich said. “When you’re in the middle of it, the feeling is ‘This is just me. What’s the matter with me?’ And when you get talking to people, you start realizing, ‘No, a lot of people are struggling with the same issues I am.'”
3. You’re confusing mission life with “adult spirituality”
If you’re around Mormons for long enough, you’ll probably hear a story about a mission president who told missionaries something he shouldn’t have, which caused the return missionary a lot of grief.
Ulrich said one of the biggest challenges for a mission president is that he will likely do what his own mission president did. So if his mission president said to go home and get married in six months or read the scriptures for an hour every day for the rest of your life, then he is likely to pass that on.
(Now, as we established in a previous blog, mission presidents saying things like “go home and get married in six months” or “read the scriptures for an hour every day for the rest of your life” is opinion, not doctrine. So if someone doesn’t follow that council, it doesn’t mean they are damned or “less.”)
“A mission is more like a boot camp than it is real life,” Ulrich said.
She compared the experience of a mission to learning discipline, which is helpful, but she said it’s not what “adult spirituality” looks like.
“Adult spirituality has a lot more to do with dealing with ambiguity and dealing with paradox and dealing with uncertainty and not knowing all the answers and figuring it out yourself and having to make lots of adjustments,” Ulrich said.
She laughed as she said when you have a kid, getting up at 6 a.m. just doesn’t work. But she said missions teach people to how get comfortable with the scriptures, how to get along with others, and how to testify.
What does it mean to be an adult in the Church?
- “Learning to question and not fall apart over it.”
- “Learning to cut people slack and to realize that your leaders are just human beings like you are, and they don’t have all the answers”
- It can’t be prescribed.
- You have to come up with the rules for yourself that “make spirituality alive in your life.”
Ulrich said the hardest part about coming home from a mission is “there are no clean answers” for a lot of the things people are going to encounter.
I think everyone in the world can agree that life is messy and complicated. And Ulrich pointed out that the early 20s is a time when everyone is having a hard time, so transitioning from a mission to coming home is already harder because of that fact.
So if you’re transitioning from getting home from your mission, just know that it’s normal if you’re having a hard time. Cut yourself some slack and cut some slack for anyone who offended you or imposed their opinion on you.