Jana Riess had up a particularly interesting and provocative post out today. I suspect most readers are familiar with her excellent Next Mormon Survey which should be coming out in a complete form in March but which has also generated many articles and posts. Today Jana mentioned that her survey has 33% of Millennial missionaries coming home early from their missions.
Needless to say this is an awfully high figure. It’d pretty well entail that for any missionary of the past 15 years that around 1/3 of their mission came home early. Of course the numbers likely aren’t distributed equally. Still if the numbers were that high I’d expect many more people to be speaking about it anecdotally. I’ll fully admit I just don’t know how many come home. It’s honestly hard for me to even remember who in my ward went out when. I couldn’t tell you who did or didn’t come home early. For me it’s more, “didn’t they just leave?” when I hear someone is home. But my wife usually corrects me. Perils of hitting middle age I suppose.
Yet is this figure correct or is it some weird artifact of the survey? That’s not a slight on her work. However Pew in their studies of Mormons found odd, hard to believe results like 79% of all Mormons paying a full tithe. So I think one can question this figure without disparaging the work.
I’ve asked a few people anecdotally about this and few had anything like 1/3 of their mission coming home early. There were a few Stakes though that may have had as many as half coming home early. Anecdotally it does seems the rate is much higher than when I was out. Jana didn’t ask why people in her survey came home early. She did refer to a less robust UVU study however that survey was not random or representative. That suggested the primary reasons people came home was mental health and physical health.
Starting around the time of the “surge” in missionary numbers around 2012 there have been numerous stories on missionaries returning early and how important it is not to judge them. Often these stories raise mental health issues (such as this Deseret News story from 2013) Russell Fox suggested an increase back in 2014 at BCC. We even had a post here by Dave Banack, who mentioned in passing “the percentage is now into the double-digits.” He didn’t quote a source by said it was “based on information quietly passed down the priesthood chain…”
It’s worth noting that Jana had the rate returning home as slightly higher before the surge.
When we separate the Millennial generation in half (18- to 26-year-olds and 27- to 36-year-olds), there’s very 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.
Most discussions of the problem latch onto the usual excuses, often tied to typical older generation criticism of Millennials. That is they’ve lived a far more sheltered life, been given far less independence as children, haven’t been taught how to work and are developing neuroses due to social media. I confess I’m skeptical of much of this. I’ve been very critical of the shift to 18 for missionaries as I think it corresponded directly to a significant decrease in missionary effectiveness. However Jana’s data suggests that this problem can’t really be tied to the age issue. So having fewer missionaries who’ve spent a year on their own at college isn’t leading to more difficulty dealing with mission life.
Missions certainly don’t sound like they are rougher than when I was out. If anything it seems like they get far more contact with home compared to our two phone calls a year. They likely don’t face the same level of persecution. It’s hard to believe that health conditions are worse. What then is making Millennials have such a harder time on missions? Even if the figures aren’t around 33% as in Jana’s data, it does seem like they’re quite high compared to when I was out. A 2013 Salt Lake Tribune article quoted “sources in the church’s Missionary Department” as a consistent 1.5% for health reasons. Of course that doesn’t include feeling overwhelmed by a mission and likely doesn’t include mental health issues.
One possibility suggested by Jana’s data is that far more people are going on missions. 66% of men and 44.5% of women while for my generation it was 53% and 28%. Pres. Hinkley had somewhat controversially tightened up restrictions on who could go on a mission in 2002. Given the larger numbers it’s quite possible that many more people are going on missions who in the late 80’s may not have gone and in the early naughts might have been excluded. That’s not clear of course. There was a drop in missionary numbers after 2002. Although again Jana’s figures don’t show a big difference for Millennials prior to the 2012 surge and after.
I honestly don’t know if that 1/3 figure is correct. As I said it’s pretty hard to believe. I’m curious what those, especially those recently on missions, were seeing relative to those going home early.
- By this I don’t mean that Jana’s survey is flawed statistically. Her methodology seems rather robust. At best one could criticize the use of online polls rather than telephone polls. However she’s hardly alone in that. I think that Pew’s religion survey also used online polls.
- Although just before I arrived in my mission there were huge numbers sent home for moral infractions. While I could never confirm it, the story was that nearly two full zones were sent home.
- It had n = 348. Quoting from the paper “participants were drawn through convenience sampling that was obtained through social and print media, presentations, fliers, and word of mouth.” As such I’d use those figures with caution.
- That’s not necessarily true of course. When I was on a mission there was a lot of persecution from conservative Christian sects who’d say downright crazy things about Mormons. I literally had a lady feel for my horns at a door once. Admittedly I was in Louisiana but still. However these days there is a lot of secular dislike of Mormons. So perhaps things aren’t actually better.
- The SL Trib story appears to assume that mental health is part of that 1.5% figure but I’m not sure it is. At a minimum it’s not clear although it would make sense that the presumption came from talking with her Missionary Department sources.