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After the first few months of his mission in England, Adam Ballard*, 19, born and raised in Provo, Utah, began to question if he genuinely believed in the only system of faith he’d ever known. He realized one of his roommates had gone on a mission to escape his abusive father, and that others struggled with depression, suicidal thoughts, and pornography addiction, which Ballard attributed to the church’s repressive stance on sexuality.
Ballard was seeing a mission-appointed counselor for anxiety. “My counselor said, ‘Elder Ballard, you can choose to be yourself and do what you believe in, or you can live a hollow life.’ I don’t think he realized what he was saying. A week later, I called my mission president and told him I was going home.”
Before he could be released, Ballard was ordered to speak to his father, his sister, and his stake president, who acts as the head of several local congregations, or "stakes." He described this as “one of the hardest things in my entire life.”
Ballard phoned his father first. “He’s like, ‘What about when Mom died? What about what you said before you left on your mission?’ And I remember telling him, ‘Dad, I lied, because I wanted to look good.’ I got off the phone and cried for two hours.”
A 2013 study at Utah Valley University found that nearly three quarters of missionaries who return home early experience a deep sense of failure. Ballard served for seven months,and received an honorable discharge for health reasons. Although he’s finding the transition difficult and his home congregation less than receptive, Ballard remains positive about the mission experience overall. “You can ‘life shop.’ You meet thousands of people who’ve lived their lives thousands of ways, people who are doctors, lawyers, janitors, who have children, who don’t have children, who are married, who aren’t married, who’ve never been married. And you can see, like, ‘Oh, that’s how I want to live my life. I want to live my life like that guy.’”
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Scott Horton’s family has been Mormon for several generations. Like many missionaries, he had doubts about his faith, but he wanted to set a good example for his younger brothers, and the scriptures suggested that the mission itself was the best way to strengthen his testimony.
While an estimated 40 percent of returned missionaries become inactive sometime after completing their mission, only 2 percent become apostates, meaning that they request to have their names removed from church rolls, or are formally excommunicated. Scott Horton is among the 2 percent. Looking back, he recalls the moment when “all the lights starting firing” on his mission in Bahia Blanca, Argentina. “In my last area, I went on a regimen of studying the Book of Mormon like crazy, praying like crazy. I got to a point where I was fasting every week, wanting to get an answer. I did that for two or three months. And just nothing.”
Another turning point occurred when Horton stopped a man on the street who was an adherent to the Virgin of Guadalupe. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting. Why do you follow her?’ And he said, ‘Well, five or six years ago, I didn’t have a job and I was out of money. And I couldn’t stand to be at home and watch my daughters cry over hunger. I was walking down the road, praying, and I had no idea what to do. And I saw a light. I looked into the light and saw the Virgin. She told me that everything would be okay, and that she was looking out for me and would provide for me. And when I looked down, below the light, there was 20 pesos on the ground. I picked it up and bought bread and milk for my daughters. I’ll always remember that, and I will never move away from her.’
“I was dumbfounded. I thanked him for sharing that story with me and let him go on his way. I remember thinking, I have nothing that even compares to something that spiritual, that profound. Who was I to stand out here telling people what to do? You start to recognize how ridiculous it is to put people’s eternal salvation in the hands of 19-year-olds who are viewing it as a competition of who can baptize more people.”
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Russell Beckstead, now in his mid-thirties, remains an active member of the Church. He still accompanies missionaries every week as a model of non-missionary fellowship—what he refers to as “being a normal person.”
Beckstead is uncomfortable with the missionary promise that conversion is a cure-all. “People will talk about how they lost their job, or they have this medical problem, or their wife left them, or their kid is in trouble at school, or their parents are suffering and old. And as a missionary, your mentality is, ‘Okay, pray and read the Book of Mormon. Done.’ And I want to be like, ‘Did you not hear all these other problems?’ I still believe that faith and Jesus Christ gives people power and comfort in their lives. But it’s not going to solve their problems!”
For Beckstead and others, like Ballard and Horton, the most memorable aspect of missionary work was the connections they developed with different kinds of people—and the theological tension these connections raised. “There’s a scripture in the Book of Mormon that says, ‘The natural man is an enemy to God.’ It gets drilled into you that everybody else is secretly miserable because they’re not in the church. As a missionary, it’s your job to share the secret to happiness. And I just found that that wasn’t true. There’s lots of happy people with great lives, just trying to do the best they can.
“Maybe my faith in the institution was shocked, but my faith in humanity was boosted.
* These names have been changed to protect privacy.