Giving Spiritual Nourishment to the Less Active: A Panel Discussion


A panel discussion on activation of less-active members was held as part of the April 1986 Regional Representatives’ Seminar. Participants in the discussion were all seven members of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy as it was constituted at that time: Elder Carlos E. Asay, Elder Dean L. Larsen, Elder Richard G. Scott, Elder Marion D. Hanks, Elder Wm. Grant Bangerter, Elder Jack H Goaslind, and Elder Robert L. Backman.

The text of their discussion is printed now to assist members and leaders in their activation labors of love.

Elder Larsen: We have been asked today to review as a panel the question “How may Church leaders help those who are in special need of nurturing?” As we pursue this topic today, we recognize the need for looking after those who for one reason or another are not presently participating fully in the blessings and opportunities of Church membership. But we would like to acknowledge as well that all of us are in need of special nurturing in one way or another, that there is a continual crossing over of the line between the areas we have become accustomed to describing as “activity” and “inactivity.” That crossing moves in both directions.

We recognize also that there are qualities of leadership that are essential for nurturing those who have special needs, as well as methods of leadership. We’ll give some attention to those qualities of leadership that relate to caring, compassion, and concern, as well as to activities that can be more easily observed.

Elder Hanks, to launch us into this discussion today, would you share with us some of your thoughts regarding ways in which a leader can demonstrate a nurturing concern for his people?

Elder Hanks: We are reminded that two fundamentals, at least, should be in the mind and the life of a leader who wants to help. One is to truly believe in the worth of souls; the other, I think, is to have confidence that it makes a difference that we do so believe and act upon that conviction. Two scriptural incidents illustrate these fundamentals.

One is the story of Zacchaeus, recorded in the nineteenth chapter of the book of Luke. Zacchaeus had been given a label—“sinner”—but he also had a great heart and a proven record of concern for the poor, regardless of what had made him unacceptable to others. He knew that the Savior was approaching and, being small in stature, climbed a tree in order to be able to see him. When the Savior drew near, he saw Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, called his name, and invited him to come down. Putting aside the label Zacchaeus had been given, the Savior went home with him and there, with encouragement and a message of hope and love, brought salvation to his house.

The other incident, from the Book of Mormon, is a remarkable expression of the fundamental character of the Lord. In chapters 11 through 28 of 3 Nephi [3 Ne. 11–28] is recorded how the resurrected Lord gathered the people together and taught them. He understood these people. He knew their needs and blessed them. He knelt with them in prayer. He wept for them. He brought salvation to them. He said, “I have commanded that none of you should go away, but rather have commanded that ye should come unto me.” (3 Ne. 18:25.)

These qualities—the appreciation of the worth of a soul, a recognition of the individual and his needs, a willingness to seek out and try to help him or her meet those needs—are fundamental to nurturing. It is most important, too, that all our efforts in this area be given stability by a foundation of spiritual strength.

Elder Backman: Another important quality priesthood leaders can develop is illustrated by a comment I recently heard a returned missionary make. He said that when he arrived in the mission field he was greeted with much love and attention from his mission president. “My mission president,” he jokingly said, “made a mistake—he thought I was an All-American, and I never told him that I wasn’t.” People tend to rise to the expectations we have of them.

Elder Larsen: Elder Scott, we’ve sometimes heard the expression that what a leader is is as important as what he does. Would you like to comment on that, please?

Elder Scott: Let me refer to the Book of Mormon account of one we know well: Nephi, the son of Helaman. You remember that Nephi taught with clarity and testified with power of Christ and the gospel. There were many who believed him, but there was a group of judges—confederates of the band of Gadianton—who tried to destroy him. He testified to them with great power and was impressed to tell them that the chief judge of the land had just been killed by his brother.

There were five men present who believed the words of Nephi and wanted to see if he was a prophet. They rushed to the palace, found the chief judge dead, and were so overcome they fell to the ground. When they were discovered, they were accused, with Nephi, of having caused the king’s death.

Nephi’s faith in Christ, coupled with his spirituality, led him to further inspiration. He told the people exactly how they could get the brother of the chief judge to confess to the crime. (See Hel. 8–9.) Nephi was released, and as he returned home pondering what had happened, the Savior spoke to him:

“Blessed art thou, Nephi, for those things which thou hast done; for I have beheld how thou hast with unwearyingness declared the word, which I have given unto thee, unto this people. And thou hast not feared them, and hast not sought thine own life, but hast sought my will, and to keep my commandments.

“And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.” (Hel. 10:4–5.)

Nephi stopped and did not go to his house; instead, he went among the multitudes who were scattered about upon the face of the land and began to declare the word of the Lord. (See Hel. 10:12.)

To me, Nephi’s faith and obedience, coupled with his impressive capacity to testify and love are what made him such a powerful leader.

Elder Larsen: Elder Goaslind, how important is it in this process of coming back into full participation to have the opportunity to serve?

Elder Goaslind: In my estimation, service is an act of love, both on the part of the one who accepts an invitation to serve and on the part of the one who extends that opportunity to him. I love King Benjamin’s words as recorded in the second chapter of Mosiah: “Behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” (Mosiah 2:17.) We really can’t have spirituality without service.

May I share a little experience that happened to me just this week when I took a telephone call in the office. It relates to the single members of the Church. The man on the phone has been divorced for about three years now. He said to me, “I just don’t understand the change that has occurred.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He replied, “For three years since my divorce my bishop has never visited with me; I have not had a home teacher. I feel I am not even a part of the Church any more. I yearn for something to do and for someone to ask me to serve in some way. Am I not valuable any more?”

I’ve thought of his words many times since. The invitation to serve really sends a message that someone cares and that there’s a place for everyone in the Kingdom. Indeed, one of the most important benefits of receiving a call to serve is the message that a person is needed, that his skills are valued, that his capacities will be of help to the Lord and to his church.

Can I share with you briefly a story President Kimball related long ago?

“The church was on fire. When the cry went forward in the small town that Robison Hall was burning, men came from every direction of the town with their buckets. One stood at the canal and dipped the water and handed the bucket to his fellow who passed it up the line, and the last one threw it on the flames. As the last walls fell in and the futile efforts had come to an end, one man put down his bucket and looked at his companion, ‘Well, I never saw you at church before.’ The other one replied, ‘Well, the church has never been on fire before.’”

Most of us, I believe, have known men and women of this type who would not respond until they were really needed. I’m sure that even some of the most resistent, least active members would respond if we asked for their help in the right way. I believe it’s essential that we extend calls of service to all members of the Church.

May I suggest another idea, too. In everything we do in the Church, we should enjoy the promptings of the Spirit of the Lord. The way one is asked to serve and the inspiration behind the calling or the assignment is imperative. We ought to make sure that when we consider giving assignments to serve, we make sure our decisions have the approbation of the Spirit and that those called are given the help they need to be successful in that service.

Elder Larsen: Elder Bangerter, how important is it to acknowledge personal agency and freedom of choice in this effort to nurture people and bring them back into full participation in the Church?

Elder Bangerter: When we speak of the sacred principle of agency, we must recognize that obedience implies the right to choose. We cannot force obedience or service. On the other hand, there is no way one can choose righteousness unless he is taught what righteousness is. Someone has to bring that knowledge to him.

But our efforts can’t end there. He should help to bring about a situation whereby the Spirit of the Lord can come into contact with that individual. As that happens, the person will experience a change of heart and desire to follow the Lord’s counsel. That is part of the meaning of King Benjamin’s statement that the natural man is an enemy to God and will remain that way until he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit. (See Mosiah 3:19.) “Verily I say unto you,” the Savior said, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3.)

Among those with whom we deal we find “natural-man” attitudes of apathy, selfishness, pride, and rebellion. People with these attitudes must be approached with a Christ-like love and a sincere interest. I suppose none of us can ever read too often the statement in section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” (D&C 121:41–42.)

Situations that require an extra portion of patience and love in dealing with individual agency include inviting an investigator to be baptized; encouraging a reluctant or unworthy person to prepare for a mission; calling less-involved members to positions of service; and inviting prospective or less-active elders to prepare for the priesthood and go to the temple. It isn’t a leader’s duty to impose his will on another.

It seems to me that one of the greatest challenges for a leader is to bring people to prayer, where they can make contact with our Father in Heaven. In this way, we do not force our influence upon them, but allow God to influence them. Then the course they choose to follow is their decision, and they will be accountable for it.

Elder Larsen: Elder Backman, in section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants we are told, “If any man among you be strong in the Spirit, let him take with him him that is weak, that he may be edified in all meekness, that he may become strong also.” (D&C 84:106.) Comment on that, would you please, in the context of our discussion today.

Elder Backman: To really understand that verse, we need to read the next verses:

“Therefore, take with you those who are ordained unto the lesser priesthood, and send them before you to make appointments, and to prepare the way, and to fill appointments that you yourselves are not able to fill.

“Behold, this is the way that mine apostles, in ancient days, built up my church unto me.

“Therefore, let every man stand in his own office, and labor in his own calling; and let not the head say unto the feet it hath no need of the feet; for without the feet how shall the body be able to stand?

“Also the body hath need of every member, that all may be edified together, that the system may be kept perfect.” (D&C 84:107–10.)

Although this counsel is given particularly to those who proclaim the gospel in the context of using the lesser priesthood for help, the principle applies to all of us in our church responsibilities. Verse 106 speaks about edifying “him that is weak.” [D&C 84:106] To edify means to build up, to increase the faith of, to improve the morality of. When you think about it, this is the way the Lord has built his kingdom. Just think what it means to us to feel the brotherhood of Jesus Christ in our gatherings. “Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.” (D&C 81:5.)

I recall the words that Harold B. Lee spoke so often when he was alive: “To lift another, you must stand on higher ground.” I think that is the key principle upon which our help to others is based.

Elder Scott: Could I just add one thing to what’s been said about this opportunity for service? Many of those who are not enjoying the full blessings of the gospel are overcoming serious mistakes in their lives, and they often have very low self-images. The opportunity for them to give service helps them feel worthwhile and needed and imbues them with a desire to pray to the Lord for help. It helps them build their confidence and self-respect.

Elder Larsen: The other day Elder Asay shared with us parts of a letter that had come into his hands. We felt that it might be appropriate for you to listen to some of it.

Elder Asay: The letter is addressed to President Ezra Taft Benson and carries a January 1986 date. I’ll read only one paragraph:

“I feel that very little but lip service is done on the local level to reactivate those inactive members. Do we really know why they are inactive, or do the leaders assume they have the answer? In our case, we feel it is the latter. In 1985 no local Church leader attempted to contact us and really find out what was troubling us.”

Note this interesting conclusion: “I testify to you that I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and I know that you, President Benson, are a prophet of God, that Jesus is the Christ, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church.”

The man who wrote this letter had not attended church in several years, but no one has cared enough about him and his family to make a visit or to inquire as to why they are not participating in Church activities.

Perhaps there are many others with testimonies who would show more interest in the Church if we only demonstrated more interest in them.

Elder Larsen: I didn’t sleep very well last night. It was not because of my anxiety over our participation in this seminar today. I was restless because I couldn’t free my mind from an encounter I had with a young man as I returned to my office yesterday from the meeting of the General Authorities in the temple. The young man was waiting for me at my office door and apologized for having come without an appointment. He said that he desperately needed to speak to someone, and he reminded me of an encounter we had had some years before while he was serving as a missionary and of some things I had written once that he said had had an effect on him.

He is an impressive young man. He served a mission and spent a couple of years at a university before marrying in the temple. For a time, things went very well for him. Four children were born to the family. He was doing well in his own business. Then some of the economic reverses in the area of the country where he was living affected him and he found himself without work. He had some promise of employment in Salt Lake City, came here, and was now keeping food on the table by handling one or two part-time jobs that came to him. He told me how desperately concerned he was about being able to sustain his family and measure up to the expectations that his priesthood leaders had for him. He said he was in the depths of despair and desperately wondered where to go from here.

I asked him if he was attached to a ward here in Salt Lake City. He said, “Oh yes, my family and I are completely active.” And he told me of a Sunday School class that he teaches. Here’s a man—totally active in the Church, living and associating daily with other active members of the Church—who desperately needs nourishing, who needs buoying up by those around him.

Let me conclude for the panel by sharing some lines from Alma’s great discourse in chapter 32 of Alma where he likens the word of God to a seed that is planted and then sprouts and grows and begins to assume the stature of a tree. The direct reference, of course, is made to the nourishing of the word and the nourishing of faith; but if you think of it also in terms of an individual, it may take on even broader meaning for you.

“And behold, as the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. And now behold, if ye nourish it with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit.

“But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.

“Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.

“And thus, if ye will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith to the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life.

“But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.” (Alma 32:37–41.)

May that be the result of our efforts—to invite those who need that special nourishment back into full participation in the blessings and benefits of the gospel.