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Farewells and Homecomings– to party or not to party?

By Michelle Lehnardt

Colorful fiesta style invitations went out to the entire neighborhood… and to surrounding areas, and to the people in the apartment complex on the corner– where the turnover is so high almost no one knows their names–  and to the postman and UPS man, the cleaning lady and the crew who does yard clean up in the spring and fall.

On a gorgeous Saturday evening we all converged in their yard to eat tacos and churros and celebrate a darling girl who had chosen to sacrifice 18 months of her life to serve her Savior on a mission in Bolivia. Everyone was greeted with love, thanks and enthusiasm and departed with full bellies, new friends and a true sense of community. In my very insular, 70% Mormon neighborhood, it was the best fellowshipping event of the summer.

But are parties like that wrong?

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Amidst other counsel in a Regional Conference this past Sunday, Elder Ballard repeated the admonition to tone down mission farewells and homecomings. The next morning, all the mothers of the neighborhood buzzed with the question, “Exactly what does he mean?”

One of my friends said, “I’m an obedient soul, so it doesn’t bother me at all.”

I replied, “I’m an obedient soul too! That’s why I want to understand.”

True understanding comes through personal revelation– we’re not commanded in all things– but I think it might be useful to have a discussion here to understand the counsel. Because I’m in the middle of my third son’s mission (and looking at sending out my fourth moments after the third arrives home), this is an emotional subject for me. Maybe too emotional for me to write about publicly.

Since we aren’t all in the same region, let’s go back to President Hinckley’s original counsel given in the October 2002 General Conference Priesthood Session:

The First Presidency and the Twelve, after most prayerful and careful consideration, have reached the decision that the present program of missionary farewells should be modified.

The departing missionary will be given opportunity to speak in a sacrament meeting for 15 or 20 minutes. But parents and siblings will not be invited to do so. There might be two or more departing missionaries who speak in the same service. The meeting will be entirely in the hands of the bishop and will not be arranged by the family. There will not be special music or anything of that kind.

We know this will be a great disappointment to many families. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and friends have participated in the past. We ask that you accept this decision. Where a farewell has already been arranged, it may go forward. But none in the traditional sense should be planned for the future. We are convinced that when all aspects of the situation are considered, this is a wise decision. Please accept it, my dear brethren. I extend this plea also to the sisters, particularly the mothers.

We hope also that holding elaborate open houses after the sacrament meeting at which the missionary speaks will not prevail. Members of the family may wish to get together. We have no objection to this. However, we ask that there be no public reception to which large numbers are invited.

Missionary service is such a wonderful experience that it brings with it its own generous reward. And when a missionary returns to his family and his ward, he may again be given opportunity to speak in a sacrament meeting.

From my vantage point, the sacrament meeting portion of the counsel has been followed without any grumbling. The old farewells where younger siblings told embarrassing stories, parents cried and friends serenaded missionaries with “In the Hollow of Thy Hand” have receded into the past. I’ve seen some where a sibling gives the youth talk or another family member provides the musical number, but in general, that portion of the counsel has been easy to follow. I think we all sensed the irreverence of a sacrament meeting roast and welcomed the more spiritual send-offs we’re seeing today.

But debate still surrounds the “elaborate open houses” “public receptions” and “get togethers.” What’s acceptable? What is not? Are the Saturday night parties OK? What about a gathering after church where no invites are sent, but people just arrive? And for people like me with very few relatives (another sensitive spot), may I invite my friends who are like family?

Sending off a child for 18-24 months, with only three or four phones calls for the duration is a BIG DEAL. A very big deal. It’s not like any other calling in the church for the very simple fact that we have limited communication with missionaries. I miss my son every single day. I missed all of my sons on their missions and the thought of sending out another one (and then another and another) makes my chest tight and my eyes all watery.

At my house, we’ve held Sunday gatherings after the sacrament meeting. It was the established pattern in our area and for our friends coming from afar, seemed to make sense. Our friends came from near and far to wrap their arms around our family and offer advice and support. I live in an area where everyone but my little household has roots stretching back to the pioneers and I’ve always felt a great lack of family. Those three farewell and two homecomings were five of the happiest days of my life– there’s been no other time when I felt so loved by my friends and ward members, no other time where I felt such belonging in this church.

I do think a Saturday night gathering with friends would be equally joyous. But with this reminder from Elder Ballard, is that taboo too?

My neighbor’s party with the tacos and churros– while certainly more elaborate than most farewells– felt completely appropriate and like a gift to the neighborhood. I don’t think anyone felt like they needed to create an equally large gathering for their own departing/returning missionary.

Another friend told me of a recent farewell in her ward. A young convert was leaving on a mission and since he had no family, the ward hosted a gathering for him. “We all felt like we’d contributed to getting him on a mission,” my friend send, “there was no way we could NOT celebrate with him.”

I think I have a Jewish heart. I love ritual and ceremony and really anything that eases the  pain of all this parting we do in life. In some ways, missionary farewells/homecomings make me think of the brother of the prodigal son. Maybe he wouldn’t have felt so jealous if someone had thrown him a party? I’m a huge believer in celebrating the good.

My son tells me I’m misinterpreting the counsel to scale back– that it’s really directed to people hiring caterers and sending out embossed invitations. But I don’t know… my simple supper is someone else’s elaborate feast.

Obviously, this isn’t something that can be decided by committee. But maybe we can lend each other insight. I haven’t even touched on the whole ‘farewell hopping’ subject, but this is already too long. And now that I’ve typed it all out, I’m not sure if I want to reveal my feelings to the meanies of the internet. So be nice, remember we’re walking on sensitive ground, but please share your thoughts.

About Michelle Lehnardt

(Blog Team) I'm the kind of mom who drives through mud puddles, throws pumpkins off the roof and lets the kids move the ping-pong table into the kitchen for the summer. Despite (or probably, because of) my immaturity, my five sons and one daughter are happy, thriving, funny people. I'll climb a mountain with you, jump into a freezing lake hand-in-hand or just sit with you while you cry. I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ will heal the earth. Founder of buildyourteenager.com, scenesfromthewild.net and rubygirl.org.

24 thoughts on “Farewells and Homecomings– to party or not to party?”

  1. Having had four missionaries leave over the course of the years I witnessed the wisdom in this counsel to not do mission farewell open houses. We live in the heart of Utah county and you can imagine that lots of missionaries were leaving from the local network of high school friends that spanned multiple high schools and stakes. I watched families who lived in teeny houses with very limited funds feel pressured to open their home and resources to the hungry throngs of kids that would descend upon their house following the sacrament meeting. This wound happen Sunday after Sunday.
    We found that for us it worked well to provide a meal to those close family members and friends who had traveled to be with us. This was more like inviting them to join our family for lunch rather than holding an open house which is literally open to everyone. Those open houses were truly becoming like wedding receptions with invites, special cakes, etc. you know the motto. "If something's worth doing it's worth doing right"! Or "Go big or go home" we seem to do that in our culture. With regards to someone without family or local support perhaps the ward could combine honoring him in combination with an existing Ward activity or something so as not to set a precedent for the others. It's easy to think of ourselves as the exception but we have to remember that the Church often has reasons we are not able to see for the counsel they give and there are always blessings for obedience.

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  2. I wasn't able to go to Regional Conf last week but I've been hearing stirrings about this message.
    First I want to know what families can afford caterers for these things- wow!
    And isn't it horrible the "keeping up with the Jones" mentality we have.
    I still believe it should be celebrated- it's an amazing blessing to the missionary and their family. But it shouldn't be like a wedding reception or anything that over-extends a family's budget.

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  3. I think it is a totally cultural thing depending on where you live. Looking through the lens of where we live in northern Nevada, the farewells you describe are equivalent to or more than the wedding receptions that are hosted. When a missionary departs there is a small informal gathering at a home either on a Saturday or Sunday evening, where if refreshments are even served they are basic. No decorations. No themes. Just a gathering of friends enjoying one another's company.

    Comparing those two very different experiences I can see why the counsel to tone down the farewells and homecomings was given to a specific region rather than the everyone.

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  4. I think living in Utah County gives one perhaps a little bit different view. The pressure many families were feeling wasn't really to keep up with the joneses but who wants to tell their missionary that just doing what all their friends'families are doing by way of opening up their homes and feeding something to what often times was literally hundreds of kids was too big of a strain on them. Personally I love to celebrate these occasions and can see a lot of good that can come from them and I realize that often our circumstances really do qualify as being different from the ones that caused the concerns to begin with but sometimes for the benefit of those whose circumstances are those that the church is concerned about our compliance provides a blessing for them. In a way it can be kind of a Zion like sacrifice. Our sacrifice benefits the whole. That's how I had to look at it because it really was a sacrifice for me to give up the big celebrations we had done with our first two missionaries.

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  5. I forgot to add that I totally agree that where you live will often dictate different iterations of this counsel. My point of view us from living in Utah County.

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  6. It's not obedience that makes me glad for this advice but a general happiness about not feeling the need to plan a big party. I'm sure people who love to plan parties are going to have a harder time with it. When my son left we had a big lunch after church but when he came home our ward had changed to sacrament meeting first and having our whole family leave (along with a bunch of the ward) right after sacrament seemed wrong. So we did the party on Saturday night. That was so much better. I had all day to prepare and everyone didn't show up at the same time so it was much less hectic. Making people come from all over the valley twice in 24 hours seemed like a lot to ask but no one seemed to complain. Once drawback was that my non-member family members only came to the party and didn't come to the talk. I would have liked them to hear his testimony and some of the reasons he was doing the mission thing. I think next time I will do the Saturday party but just do desserts. Why do we feel the need to feed the whole world a full meal? I've got 4 more kids, all of which may or may not go, but I feel good about simplifying the process.

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  7. I can't speak for Utah. The parties described above kind of melt my mind, but I can't form an opinion on them. Its a cultural outside my own.

    Out here "in the mission field", at least in my ward, I have never witnessed such a thing. Occasionally when a missionary leaves there is often a word-of-mouth/Facebook shout-out requesting that all those who wish to bid so-and-so adieu to gather a thus-and-thus location (usually the family's house, or a larger house belonging to a friend of the family) and if you're so able to bring a pie or cake to contribute. It's just been a dessert and socialize sort of affair, and not all out-bound missionaries choose to do such.

    Homecomings tend to be likewise. "Hey, so and so is coming home for a few days between now and college. Come say hi between thus and thus time."

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  8. I have actually started to wonder about the huge parties for the opening of the mission call you see on Youtube. In my day it was a very personal event that was shared with parents/family only. My boyfriend and I both got our calls the same week but we did not open together but with our parents. It was a sacred event.

    I still get teary seeing some of the Youtube openings pf the call, but when I see how many people are in attendance I cringe. There is so much noise and cheering. So much pressure for the exotic mission.

    I live in an area where we are the minority with church memberships. Most farewells I see are family and close friend events. They are close and intimate. A lot more my style anyway. The idea of something all the students in their year at school could attend seems strange and would be overwhelming. I also live a long way from my family so understand why you may want more than just family at such events (as those friends who live close become like family).

    I wonder if the toning down of the parties is also to help those who may come home early. I have seen big parties planned months in advance to celebrate a RM. But if they come home early they get none of this. Making low key for everyone might make it easier for those who do not have happy home comings. Personally when I got home my mum wanted a huge party and I said no and she invited a few friends over – I spent most of the time with the local missionaries who dropped by as that was where I felt most comfortable.

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  9. The problem in my UT ward is when 1/2 of the ward leaves after sacrament meeting to go party at the missionaries house. We've asked our kids not to leave church, but when they try and go to their respective classes, the teachers don't even show up because they're at the party. All the youth leave, to go to the missionaries house just to eat and have fun whether they actually know the missionary or not. It's very disruptive to the Sunday block of classes. I feel like the brethren are telling us to quit disrupting the Sunday block and remember what we truly should be doing.

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  10. Our ward always has a farewell for the missionary but it's almost always on a Sunday night and it's super casual and everyone is expected to bring a plate of cookies or a treat to share. There is no decorating, no financial outlay for the family (except for paper plates and a bag of ice for the water). It's very much just a time to say goodbye to someone dear to us. If the Savior stopped by nobody would change a thing, I believe.

    The thing I find super weird is all the people who go to the airport to pick up the missionary when she/he gets home. I told my husband that I only want our immediate family to go. It's going to be such an emotional experience that I don't want everyone I know showing up. Plus I don't want to share my missionary with ANYONE for at least a few hours. It actually says not to invite everybody and their dog to the airport in the missionary manual they get with their call so that makes me feel like I'm not just being selfish.

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  11. One key part of what President Hinckley said in conference that resonates with me is "after" the sacrament meeting at which the missionary speaks. Also the word "elaborate" sticks out to me. With more wards holding meeting blocks, where possible, with sacrament meeting first it makes a lot of sense to not have a party right after sacrament meeting. In that same vein it also makes sense to not have an "elaborate" party on the sabbath. On Saturday night? I guess we use our best judgement. There may be situations where a missionary doesn't have a lot of support or family and I can see the wisdom (and joy!) in holding a non-elaborate, non-public, non- …..reception. What that looks like for each situation will vary.
    Michelle, you happen to live in one of the few wards that I have seen these types of things work the way we all imagine and hope the could. The kind of neighborhoods where kids go trick or treating and neighbors open their porches, garages and homes to wholesome festive celebrations. Even in the geographic context of the salt lake region, neighborhoods like that are rare. I don't know if the advent of social media has made the comparison temptation more rampant or if there is actual pressure inside feative communities to match each other. I don't know why the counsel was given, but I don't think it was because the experiences you have had were false or somehow wrong. And like you said in the post true understanding and obedience can come through personal revelation, I am sure you will find a happy medium because you are an obedient soul and God love you!

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  12. I took the council to mean that we shouldn't make it an event about the individual. The purpose of a mission is doing the Lord's work and any send off we give them should be given with that in mind. All involved need to feel like they have a support system in place, so I'm sure whatever gives you that sense of community is fine, so long as the spirit of what's happening isn't set to the side. I have every confidence you're doing it just fine, Michelle.

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  13. When our oldest daughter was baptized a few years ago we didn't buy her a fancy white dress, we didn't set up a photo shoot, or send out invitations. We didn't have a lot of money at the time and didn't see any if those extras as a necessity. She wore a lovely white stake-issued baptism dress, and then changed into one of her Sunday dresses for the confirmation. It all felt fine and good. But a girl her age asked me why she wasn't wearing her "white dress" for the confirmation just before she received the gift of the Holy Ghost. I explained to her that you actually don't need to have a white dress for receiving the Holy Ghost, it was an innocent from a child (who had recently been baptized, herself), but telling none-the-less. Church geographic culture can easily become confused with actual doctrine.
    Had it been a "requirement" for her to be wearing white, or to have a fancy new dress, I am sure we would have got it done for her one way or another. But it is sad to me that it was a statement for us NOT to do it, sigh.

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  14. I had hoped those fancy bapstism photos were just a result of happy enthusiasm in a land with a plethora of temples and a plethora of cousins with fancy cameras.

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  15. Why don't you know the names of the people who live in apartments in your ward boundaries? Just because turnover might be high, are they not worth knowing because they don't own a home? What message is such an attitude sending to your son(s) who will likely have to tract through apartment complexes? High turnover of occupants should mean more friends made when new members move in and more friends to acknowledge and remember with love if they move away. My experience is that those members are attending and serving in the ward and yet are likely completely invisible to a large number of the "established" homeowner members. They are probably aching and yearning to have the love of the Savior manifest towards them through the hearts and hands of their fellow ward members. Maybe practicing fellowshipping with your own ward members would teach soon-to-be-missionaries something about being genuine when they go out into their respective fields. Regardless of the size of the send-off, such knowledge and experience would serve these young people well.

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  16. My sister-in-law teaches a youth Sunday School class in her Utah ward, and she says this is a huge problem. So many kids are missing so many Sundays due to farewell-hopping.

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  17. JHS, I've clearly hit a sensitive spot for you just as "family gathering" is a sensitive spot for me. I meant to illustrate the inclusiveness of our neighbor's party (it was truly a beautiful thing). I can assure you, we know all the members– renters or not– in our area, but we don't know everyone in the apartment complex (which isn't in our ward boundary). I'm sure you're right that renters are sometimes excluded, but that certainly isn't the case here.

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  18. When my brother went on his mission we did a farewell and a homecoming party. And a party when he got his call. I don't feel bad about this for many reasons, mainly because he had a large group of less active and non-member friends, and those were possibly the only times they ever went to church and were exposed to the gospel.

    We did not have an elaborate fancy theme, or spend tons of money, but I like to think it was positive outreach to nonmembers. And it was amazing to see so many long haired teens in the pews, and congratulating my brother on being sent to Oklahoma. We didn't invite the whole ward though, so it shouldn't have disrupted the meeting.

    My daughter just told me she plans to to on a mission, and who knows what we'll do. Our ward is ridiculously young, but if we're still here in 16 years I'm sure we'll have a mission farewell every Sunday, like we currently have baby blessings every Sunday.

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  19. When my daughter got baptized, I let her pick out a new dress. She chose a pink one covered in mustaches. We took a picture of her in the dress in front of the church building. We took a picture of her in this dress with a friend who was also getting baptized, who was wearing a fancy white dress.

    I personally feel the baptism photo shoots are out of control.

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  20. I currently am serving as a senior missionary overseas. As I talk to the young elders and sisters in the field, they generally say they would prefer not to have had a grand farewell event. It makes it seem to them that they are getting a send-off on a grand adventure and are being viewed as heroes setting off to conquer with capacity and glory. And when the mission itself unfolds in all its struggle and sacrifice and sense of self-doubt, the contrast between what they felt they were being sent off to with all those expectations and with all that hoopla, and what they are in the middle of, becomes a further source of self-doubt and misguided self-evaluation. Generally, they say that time to meet with and converse with immediate family and a few close friends, without all the invitaions, food, trimmings and busyness of a "farewell" would have been more helpful.

    I am a mom. I know that for moms this departure of a beloved son or daughter is huge, and for some of them this farewell thing is their way of expressing their feelings about that. But, from here, it looks like it is better to let your son or daughter leave with simply some precious time for sweet communication with a few best beloved individuals who are dear to them and/or whose counsel and support they sense will be important while they are gone as well as when they return from this errand of the Lord.

    The farewells may be fun, but they often end up not being helpful.

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  21. I understand what President Hinckley said to be an indication that they "hoped" people wouldn't host parties right after sacrament that would give half the ward an excuse to skip Sunday School. I think that Elder Ballard is more speaking as a man that as a prophet with his comments in this instance, but I think he means that families should be guilted in to hosting extravagant catered parties to send off a missionary. What it comes down to for me is what I think Heavenly Father would want or expect. In my family, and my experience, mission farewells are one of few events where we always have some non-members involved. I think it's great to have them come to a farewell and then join our family and friends to celebrate a moment in life. I cannot fathom a loving Heavenly Father being upset that we did that instead of sitting through another Sunday School lesson. Life is made for living. Men are that they might have joy. Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath. I say go to sacrament, then eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow your missionary will leave for two years and who knows when you'll all be together again.

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  22. Before I begin, please let me say that I hope my words will be received with the intent I share them: with sincere kindness and respect. 🙂

    There are many aspects of this story that have already been discussed here, but one line of thought that hasn't been mentioned is: what about LDS parents whose youth choose not to serve a mission due to various life circumstances? What if their youth refuse to serve a mission due to serious issues with belief/testimony? What about LDS parents whose youth aren't qualified to serve a mission due to medical conditions, or other serious mental/emotional/physical health challenges?

    I can only imagine how devout LDS parents might feel when everyone in their ward and surrounding areas go to large celebrations of soon-to-depart or recently-returned missionaries. Certainly those wonderful parents are most likely very happy for any and every missionary to make that amazing commitment to serve the Lord and our church. But I also imagine their hearts ache tremendously in those moments of celebration. What would they give to be able to send off their own child to serve the Lord for two years? What blessings are their youth (and subsequently their family unit) missing out on by not serving a mission?

    I believe this situation (celebrating missionaries) is totally different from weddings or graduation celebrations because the missionaries' lives will be ALL about serving our Heavenly Father, and our Savior. The missionaries' lives then become all about everyone else—not themselves, or their own life paths.

    All of that said, I fully understand that life isn't fair and that we all have different triumphs and disappointments—no one experiences life in the same way. Things will be easier for some and more difficult for others. That totally applies to church service as well.

    Yet I firmly believe what President Hinckley said about missionary farewells/open houses still stands and applies today—especially since he clarified his 2002 statement with, "The First Presidency and the Twelve, after most prayerful and careful consideration, have reached the decision…" Until our current First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve make a statement otherwise, President Hinckley's original statement still stands.

    I also believe that when Elder Ballard spoke in our most recent regional conference, he did so as an apostle, thus upholding what President Hinckley clarified 14 years ago. So, it's up to each family, individually, to decide what they will do when and if they have a glorious missionary within their ranks. 🙂

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