The day I arrived in Bordeaux, my first assignment as a green French missionary, I was greeted by my trainer, Elder Watson from Tasmania, with these words of counsel and warning (imagine a thick, but charming Aussie accent); “Welcome to France Elder, you’re now part of the local color. Like the town drunk, or the man who beats his wife, you’re the Mormon missionary.”
I’ll never forget those words, because they proved to be prophetically true. For two years I was one of the local Mormon missionaries and if I ever doubted or forgot that fact, I only needed to look down at the badge on my lapel pocket or into the eyes of the unsuspecting French who responded to my knock on their door.
Who I was during those two years was further emphasized the day my companion and I knocked on a door, only to be greeted by (in French of course) “Where have you been? It’s been at least two years and I’ve been waiting for you to come back, but you didn’t. What happened?” No matter how hard we tried, we could not convince that dear woman that we were not the same Mormon missionaries from two or more years earlier who had failed to say goodbye when they were transferred. Upon reflection, it didn’t really matter, because her connection wasn’t to me or to my companion, nor to those other Elders. Her connection was to that which (and who) we represented and what she had no doubt experienced through the previous missionaries. To her we weren’t individuals; we were all the same.
My personal identity of “missionary” was therefore reinforced at every turn and I took on that identity wholeheartedly, without reservation. This state of being, albeit intense and all-consuming, could only ever be temporary, however. After two years of belonging to an army of similarly uniformed young men and women who enjoyed instant recognition and instantaneous reactions wherever we went, I was once again stateside, and… Me. Me, without a nametag, a “uniform,” an army of support, or a specific purpose to define who I was. So, who was I now?
All returned missionaries (RM) face an identity crisis to one degree or another when they return from the mission field. After a set period with a clearly defined and reinforced identity, built around purpose, community, personal habits, and the good (or bad) opinion of others, we return to a place where we’re just another face in the crowd, with less notoriety than the “town drunk.” Whatever sense of self we had before our missions is long forgotten, having been consumed and transformed by the missionary experience. The floundering returned missionary now faces a forty or more-year future to envision, plan, and execute, without the companionship of his or her missionary identity.
Unlike the letter that announces our mission call, opened with such fanfare and anticipation, the corresponding “thank you for your service” letter and the obligatory homecoming talk are followed by a void that each returned missionary must fill, more or less on his or her own.
So how does one navigate the post-mission period successfully to establish a new self? The church and our LDS culture provide a playbook of things to do: school, temple marriage, work, family, and service in the church and community. This playbook even takes us into retirement where we can resume the missionary identity, this time with our eternal companion. That’s what we can do, but does all that activity tell us who we are, or who we can become? As President Russell M. Nelson has said, “It is important to know who you are and who you may become. It is more important than what you do, vital as your work is” (talk given at CES Fireside in September 2000).
In recent years the church has provided integration materials (My Plan for Returned Missionaries) that can help in setting one’s direction. In addition to this, and the good habits acquired in the mission field (scripture reading, prayer, and service), the post-missionary experience comes after 18 to 24 months of consecrated service and growth that was based on being a servant of God. The challenge for the RM is to merge the missionary habits and identity into the secular roles and relationships that will seek a greater claim to his or her time, attention, and sense of self. If successful, the returned missionary will be able to forge a new, unique identity that will continue to evolve throughout the full span of one’s adult years, and in turn be manifested in one’s family, the church, and the world.
Whether you are a returned missionary or someone (parent, grandparent, friend, or priesthood leader) who loves a returned missionary, here are some practical tips to help in creating that new identity during the transition period and beyond:
Identify and hold onto the constants in your identity. While the formal title of “missionary” is temporary, the title of “Servant of God” can be permanent.
Be gentle with yourself. You have just dedicated a significant portion of your young life to serving God and his children, have lived many experiences, and hopefully learned a few life lessons. Give yourself the time to let the entirety of the experience distill upon your soul. How and when these insights become part of your new self will become clear in time.
Don’t impose rigid timetables on yourself as to when you should be transitioned from your mission to “secular life.”
Remember that there is no such thing as the perfect or ideal returned missionary. You are unique and don’t need to compare yourself against the experience of another (sibling, friend, general authority, etc…).
Remind yourself to keep the good habits from your mission but repurpose them to the goal of finding yourself and then building your future; in that order.
Remember who you are. Though no longer a missionary by calling, you are still a son or daughter of God; that hasn’t changed.
Know who you are and where you are going in your life, at least foundationally, before you invite someone to join you on the journey.
The returned missionaries who are more likely to successfully transition from mission to a full life that they co-create with their Heavenly Father, are those who have completed their time of service with an internalized identity of “Servant of God.” This is a far more meaningful and powerful identity than “Returned Missionary.” The latter role places its emphasis on the past and the role served, rather than the present, the future, and who our missionary experience helped us to become. Servant of God is an identity that you can carry with you throughout your life and apply to family, profession, and service, in whatever way you and Heavenly Father decide is true for you.
We'd like to thank Alan Downing for contributing this article to Discover Identity