“To those who have ceased activity … , we say, ‘Come back. Come back and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the Saints.’”
So wrote the First Presidency to all less-active and disaffected members of the Church. (See Ensign, March 1986, p. 88.) “We are confident,” they continued, “that many have longed to return, but have felt awkward about doing so. We assure you that you will find open arms to receive you and willing hands to assist you.”
Many less-active members of the Church in Madison, Wisconsin, have found those words to be true. Under a program introduced by Paul M. Norton, president of the Madison Wisconsin Stake, active members are opening their arms and extending willing hands to less-active members in such a way that many are returning to fellowship. “We become regularly involved in their lives in a meaningful way,” President Norton explains, “sharing the hard times and the easy times, just as we do with our families. When we do that, we see families strengthened and individuals return to activity.”
The Madison Wisconsin Stake is fairly small, with two thousand members, but according to President Norton, “Our stake members reactivated twenty-two people in the first four months of the program.” Now a steady stream of couples attend temple preparation seminars. “It is inspiring to see them working to establish an eternal marriage,” he continues. “We rejoice with the Savior when we see those who were ‘lost’ to the blessings of gospel association return to the fold of full fellowship with us.”
Stakes around the Church are responding to the First Presidency’s invitation to place a renewed emphasis on activation. In leadership conferences, for example, General Authorities repeatedly stress how important it is that stake leaders strengthen home teaching with committed brethren who can effectively work with less-active families one-on-one.
Following the guidelines from the Brethren, Madison stake leaders have contacted less-active families by sending letters and by assigning special home teachers to visit the homes each week.
“If we are to reach out for these our brethren, our response to less-active members needs to change,” President Norton adds. “Instead of thinking we should not bother these brothers and sisters, or that we cannot rely on them for assignments or assistance, we must see them as the Savior does.
“In the language of the parable in Matthew 18, the Lord describes less-active members as ‘these little ones’ (Matt. 18:14) whom he dearly loves. And he rejoices more in their return to activity than in our continued activity without them.”
The Madison stake has attempted to leave the “ninety and nine” sheep within the fold and go “into the mountains” (Matt 18:12) in search of the one that is lost. “By going into the mountains to search,” explains President Norton, “I believe the Lord meant going out of your way, and the going may not be easy.”
“Our own weaknesses in living the gospel must not keep us from reaching out to less-active members, because it is precisely in this kind of reaching out for the one that our weaknesses become strengths. It is only in this way that our hands become clean and our hearts pure. We become a means for the Savior’s rejoicing over finding the one that was lost.”
Being good shepherds, however, requires more than finding the lost sheep. As Luke tells us, once we have found the lost sheep, we then help carry him or her home on our shoulders, rejoicing. (See Luke 15:3–7.) President Norton explains that until we extend our love to and express our interest in less-active members, “We cannot assume that they don’t want to be bothered or won’t be interested in an assignment. And we cannot assume that less-active members no longer believe the Church to be true. That, surprisingly, is not the case. More often than not, members quit attending church for one of a variety of personal reasons. Their belief in the divinity of the Church or the prophet is seldom a reason given.”
He says few of the reasons members give for their inactivity in the Church have any doctrinal basis. Most have to do with small but regrettable conflicts with other members, disappointment in the human weaknesses of their leaders, a feeling of not belonging or a lack of desire to keep all the commandments, especially the Word of Wisdom and tithing. Then, too, there are inconvenient meeting times, long distances to church, or negative comments about the Church in the media.
Inactivity in the Church is explained in myriad ways for a variety of reasons. But when members become reactivated, the reason is usually singular—they were loved, sincerely and consistently, by other members. And that love brought them again into fellowship, reviving their spiritual heartbeats and their feelings of brotherhood in the household of faith. Once that occurs, a member can gain the inner strength to serve in the kingdom and participate in and contribute to the blessings of the faithful.
President Norton has urged bishops, branch presidents, and quorum leaders to initiate contact with less-active families by expressing love and concern.
Not everyone can say he has received a loving letter from his bishop. And not every bishop can say he has written a loving letter to a ward member. But since the time of the Apostle Paul, whose epistolary ministry strengthened the Church during the early days, letters have been an effective means of sharing the love of the gospel. In the Beloit Ward of the Madison Wisconsin Stake, recently-released Bishop Crawford Gates explains his heartwarming success: “I wrote letters to every less-active member of my ward, many of whom are students at Beloit College where I teach, expressing my love for them and inviting them to come back.”
In his letters, Bishop Gates mentioned that he hadn’t seen the person for some time, invited him or her back, and then followed up with another letter or a visit.
“The letters never took the place of personal meetings, but they helped set them up with people I didn’t even know,” explains Bishop Gates. “And we became acquainted that way.”
Why letters in this age of telephone communication? “First of all,” says Bishop Gates, “I find great recreation in composing a letter. Some people may find letter-writing tedious, but to me is quite a lot of fun. I enjoy it.”
Letters allow Bishop Gates to gather his thoughts and “think through exactly what I believe that person might need to hear. Sometimes I want to sit down and talk with them, eyeball to eyeball. But with a letter I can direct my full attention to their needs rather than being distracted by what is often the wandering nature of conversations.”
Although many of Bishop Gates’ letters were unanswered, they still opened doors. “The members could tell I cared. When they received a letter, they knew that I had taken the time to express my concern for them.” Then, when the bishop came to visit those to whom he had written, they knew not only why he came but also that he was interested in why they had stopped coming to church. Because Bishop Gates had asked this question in his letter, the recipients had had time to formulate a response.
Of the wonderful accounts of friendships made during his service as bishop, one is particularly close to his heart.
A young woman named Barbara married a young man who wasn’t a member of the Church. Her parents were disappointed in her choice because of the example she had set for their seven other children. Barbara soon ceased activity in the Church, and after several years, she and her husband divorced. Because Barbara felt rejected by her parents, she moved to Beloit.
Soon after her arrival she began dating a man who had never been a member of the Church. Then she received one of Bishop Gates’ letters, which led to visits from both Crawford and Georgia Gates. A warm reception and cordial conversation were followed by other visits of increasing warmth with both Barbara and her boyfriend. This progressed to regular home teaching lessons on gospel subjects, then missionary discussions, and finally marriage and the young man’s baptism. He has recently received the Melchizedek Priesthood, and they are attending the stake’s temple preparation seminar before being sealed in the temple.
“In the strictest sense, what we are doing here is not really a program at all,” explains David Clark, first counselor in the Madison stake presidency. “We haven’t specifically trained the elders quorums in how to fellowship these families. Madison, like many university towns, places great emphasis on individual thought and initiative. President Norton has that kind of respect for the ward and quorum leaders in this stake. What we have done is remind them who these less-active members are. The quorums and home teachers are catching the vision. They are aware that these lost sheep are in need of help and that we are in need of them. When the work is done with the Spirit and the less-active member sees the sincerity of the concern, there is a reunion. And it is wonderful.”
The key to most of the success in Madison seems to be home teachers who are able to reach the “one,” as Mark Hasler did with Frank and Adeline Horner.
The Horners joined the Church at middle age and then didn’t attend for more than fifteen years. But when Frank was rushed to the Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester, Minnesota, one of Adeline’s first calls was made to Mark Hasler her home teacher, so he could give Frank a priesthood blessing.
Mark administered to Frank and then called the missionaries in Rochester to ask if they would visit Brother Horner during his stay at the clinic. When Frank returned home after his surgery, he was not only dramatically improved in health but was also eager to quit smoking and resume full commitment to the gospel.
This new spirit in the Horner home allowed Mark Hasler to be a spiritual guide rather than merely a frequent reminder of the way of life the Horners had not yet fully embraced.
For years both Frank and Adeline had smoked cigarettes, each blaming the other for not quitting. “If only he would quit,” she would say, “then it would be possible for me, too.” And his response had been the same.
This continued until Frank’s surgery and the blessing from his home teachers. The next two months were a short but wonderful time of intimate and rich spiritual blessings for them both. But suddenly—the next month—Adeline died of cancer.
“Mark was more than just a home teacher after I lost my Adeline,” Brother Horner explains. “He and his wife Renee were a wonderful comfort, as were other ward members. Those two were like true family, which is what the gospel of Jesus Christ was sent to show us.”
As with all stories of conversion and reconversion, the challenges did not cease with Sister Horner’s passing. Frank has continued in his attempt to understand what the Savior would have him do with his life. “The Church became a place of refuge for me during those first painful months after Adeline’s death,” he recalls. During that time of mourning it was important to Frank that a tender and caring home teacher could share in his grief.
The following year, Frank met Pam at a Special Interest fireside. “The Lord brought us together,” Pam says. “We needed each other very much.” They are married now and actively serving in their ward.
“She is so much younger than I am. And so is Mark, my home teacher. But both have taught me and given me so much. I am a very different man than I was without the Church,” says Frank.
“Much of my involvement was to just listen supportively,” Mark explains. “That’s part of the home teacher’s responsibility as I interpret the twentieth section of the Doctrine and Covenants: to ‘watch over’ and ‘be with and strengthen them’ (D&C 20:53) and to remind and help them to ‘attend to all family duties.’ (D&C 20:47.)”
Mark’s and Frank’s friendship has deepened through the years. Mark still goes to the Horner home with his companion to discuss ways to strengthen family relationships and to teach the gospel. Frequently, Mark’s buoyant wife, Renee, who as a high school girl knew and admired the Horners, goes with him to visit.
Programs and techniques are not the reasons members become active again in Madison. Instead, as with most blessings and opportunities, these rich relationships are achieved only through patient effort.
President Norton is convinced that “a home teacher’s faith can make a great difference, and we are seeing the effect he can have.”
When John and Janet Lubniewski married, neither of them gave much thought to the other’s religion. John had been raised in an LDS home, and Janet was Catholic. Both had left their religions at home when they came to college in Madison, where they met. After they married, a home teacher named Dee Higley came to visit.
Dee recalls those first meetings with a smile. “They were about to have a baby, so we focused on family topics and even used some of the missionary lesson materials.” And he took some of the latest information about birth to Janet from the laboratory where he worked as a graduate student.
“John began to come to church, and he blessed their baby. Following that event, his spirituality began to blossom. And now our wives have become fast friends and do things together,” Dee continues.
With the light of the gospel suffusing his life, John has become a beacon for his wife and daughter. In this way, he is both the recipient and provider of blessings. “I’ll always be indebted to my friend Dee Higley, who was willing to come into my life at a time when I would again be receptive to the gospel,” says John. “It is helping me to be a better husband and father.”
A final illustration of the spirit of activation in the Madison Wisconsin Stake comes from a small branch outside Madison.
“We didn’t really consider ourselves inactive,” says Howard Hunt of the Platteville Branch. But as I look back now, I can see that we were like a flashlight with only one battery in it. You don’t get half as much light with one battery when two are needed. You get no light.”
Howard and his wife, Starr, were attending church less than half the time and not paying tithing. “We came to church once or twice a month,” Starr recalls. “It’s sixty miles one way, so we would rationalize that part-time efforts would bring full-time blessings, and the Lord would understand. Or so we thought.”
There were other influences besides distance—social pressures from nonmember family and friends. When their branch president, Gerald Bench, began visiting them, the Hunts were resistant. “There was a block between us and President Bench,” Howard explains. “He would teach us, but we couldn’t quite hear.”
President Bench persevered, and slowly he counseled the Hunts in the practical matters of married life—budgeting, planning, organizing. They began to feel comfortable with his advice and recognized his love and wisdom.
“I was mostly lacking in knowledge,” Howard explains, “and I learned from President and Sister Bench’s example that obedience can be a pleasure rather than a burden. It’s amazing, but that simple truth has helped me to feel more love for people.”
President Norton has guided the members of his stake to love others into renewed Church activity. The example of the Madison Wisconsin Stake reminds us of just who those lost sheep are in our ward, branch, quorum, or class, and what can be done for them. Once reminded, each of us needs to find the courage to reach out to them.