Commentary: More Mormon missionaries are coming home early, study shows

I’ve been hearing a good deal lately about early return missionaries — Mormon young adults who head out on their mission, only to come home before their assignment (two years for men and 18 months for women) is up.

It’s this week’s topic of Rosemary Card’s excellent new podcast “Q.MORE,” with guest Thomas McConkie; a feature story in LDS Living has just addressed one missionary’s early return in a compassionate way; and rumors are abounding that October’s General Conference will feature, among other announcements, the option that missionaries may be able to serve for shorter periods.

I can’t speak to the truth of that rumor, but judging from some of the things we learned in doing the Next Mormons Survey, I can understand the wisdom behind it if it does turn out to be true. (See here for more about the sample size and methodology of the NMS.)

First, the good news. We found an encouraging rise in missionary service among millennials, especially among women.

Women’s service has grown, more than tripling from the baby boomer/silent generations (13 percent of women) to the millennials (44.5 percent).

What’s more, a strong majority of RMs say they had a positive experience. There’s a lot more about this in the Next Mormons book that’s coming in March, but for our purposes here just know that most missionaries think their mission was a valuable part of their lives, even if they came home early.

But those early returns are increasing. In our study, we did not have a single boomer/silent respondent, male or female, who had returned early from a mission. This was the “don’t come home early unless it’s in a coffin” generation. By the time we get to the millennials, it’s nearly one in five (17 percent).

Keep in mind that the number measures early returns against everyone in that generation, not just those who actually served a mission. If we were to look at just that number, fully a third of millennial Mormons who went out on a mission came home before their assigned time.

Why is this happening? That question, it turns out, is harder to answer than it is to document the fact that it is occurring.

My first theory was that this could be related to the lowering of the missionary age requirement in 2012, when it became 19 for women and 18 for men. It made sense that less-mature missionaries who might never have lived away from home before would have a harder time adjusting to the stringent, 24/7 demands of mission life.

The data don’t bear this out, however. When we separate the millennial generation in half (18- to 26-year-olds and 27- to 36-year-olds), there’s little difference in the rate of early returns, and what difference does exist actually goes in the other direction. This trend started with the older millennials and has largely continued with the younger ones.

The NMS did not have a question asking early returnees why they came home early, but there is one small survey, conducted by researchers at Utah Valley University, that canvassed that population for precisely this information. The most common reasons given were:

  • Mental health (36 percent).

  • Physical health (34 percent).

  • A previously unresolved transgression (12 percent).

  • Disobeying mission rules (11 percent).

The authors of the UVU study note:

Only 12 percent of the respondents came home due to unresolved transgression and 11 percent for breaking mission rules, which means fewer than a quarter of respondents returned early for issues related to transgression. This is noteworthy because many ERMs [early return missionaries] feel like people assume they returned for worthiness issues. They feel stigmatized and ashamed, whether or not there was sin involved.

Sadly, a majority of ERMs did not have a loving welcome when they came home earlier than expected. Nearly six in 10 respondents in the UVU study said their wards, or congregations, were unfriendly or indifferent, and nearly half said their local church leaders treated them poorly. (More happily, fewer than a third reported such a chilly reception in their own families.)

Going back to the Next Mormons Study, one final note about something interesting: The rate of early return is slightly higher among women than it is among men. In the millennial generation, for example, 35 percent of female missionaries returned early, compared to 29 percent of male missionaries.

This surprised me, because on nearly every measure of belief and practice, Mormon women outstrip men. Women are more faithful in attending church, paying tithing and reading their scriptures; they also score higher than men on testimony questions by an average of 9 percentage points.

Perhaps this is the consequence of women being told all their lives that a mission is an option, whereas for men it is an obligation? We can’t tell why from the data.

What is clear is that early returns are on the rise for both men and women, which is something that Mormon culture needs to learn to deal with in a more loving and responsible way.