Instantly recognizable and seemingly ubiquitous, Mormon missionaries are hard to miss. In their neat business attire with name tags and enthusiastic smiles, they are seen in neighborhoods around the world.
While thousands of news articles have been written over the years about missionaries and their work, few people realize the impact their missions have on the rest of their lives.
Returning home for Mormon missionaries is more than picking up where they left off. Circumstances and relationships at home may have changed — and the missionary comes home a different person than the one who left two years earlier.
“Generally, young people who come back from their missions have changed in many significant ways,” says Elder M. Russell Ballard, one of the Church’s Twelve Apostles.
“They have spent up to two years helping others, thinking outside of themselves, studying scripture, learning a new language in many cases, finding out about new cultures and having experiences that make them more responsible, more caring and thoughtful human beings.”
He also believes that missionary experience focuses and enhances the way a person approaches life’s challenges and opportunities.
"Perhaps the most important education a young person can get is in the mission field. They learn to present themselves and to speak and relate to others. When they go home they take these and other skills and attributes with them, which help them move forward in their careers, their personal and family relationships and in their service in the Church and the community."
There are currently some 53,000 full-time missionaries serving in over 150 countries. That means that around 25,000 missionaries return to their homes each year, where they learn to serve in various positions in their congregations, often becoming teachers and leaders.
"Missionary service across our Church leads to a highly religiously educated membership, and forms the backbone of future volunteer Church leadership and service at every level," Elder Ballard said.
Many former Latter-day Saint missionaries are recruited for government and business positions that require a second language and a high degree of trust and integrity.
Latter-day Saints who are leaders in business and other fields often refer to their missions as the place they learned hard work and self-reliance and came to understand their own faith better.
Notwithstanding the emphasis that many returned missionaries place on work, family and Church service, their missions are usually not a distant memory.
In the homes of many former missionaries you will find flags and other reminders of the country in which they served. When a news story or some other program on television mentions their mission area, they may be immediately drawn to the screen. The land and people of their missionary days become part of who they are.
John Taylor, a former mission president for the Church in Monterrey, Mexico, believes that “returned missionaries also become lifelong unofficial ambassadors for the nations where they served. And it won’t just be encyclopedic knowledge they can talk with you about — they will tell you with tears in their eyes how wonderful Peruvians are, or Mongolians, or whatever people they served among.”