In Birmingham, Alabama, it’s a matter of time. Many less-active members who have come back to full activity in the Birmingham Alabama Stake have done so because someone lovingly gave whatever time it took to bring them back.
Sometimes it took weeks. More often, it took months, years, or even half a lifetime. Reactivated members often say that the Spirit of the Lord patiently prepared them to come back. In Birmingham, they also say that active members helped by keeping open the bridges of love that the less-active tried to burn.
Barbara Murray tried “burning her bridges” during a time when she doubted her spiritual conviction of the gospel. She remembers telling an LDS friend that she felt as though she had just been through a “terrible divorce” from the Church. She wanted nothing more to do with it.
Barbara attended other churches for a while, seeking a spiritual base and the kind of fellowship she had known in her ward. But “it really was sort of lonely out there,” she recalls. At another church one day, she heard a group criticizing Latter-day Saints. Despite her own doubts, Barbara knew the criticisms were untrue. So she quit going to any church, feeling she and her family could worship at home.
Meanwhile, friends from her ward kept in contact with telephone calls and notes in the mail. “All the letters that I received at home were so sweet and tender. ‘We miss you, Barbara. When you’re ready to come back, please let me know and I will come and get you,’” she remembers reading in one letter. “I felt totally loved.”
She clung to her testimony of certain gospel principles, and with time, her doubts were resolved. She knew she had to go back to her ward. But could other members accept her after she had turned her back on the Church?
“It was like coming home,” she recalls, smiling. “I was embraced and loved, and there were tears from my sisters.” Her friends accepted her without reservations, she says.
The Top Priority Is Love
One of the letters that helped bring Barbara Murray back came from her bishop, David Norris of the Birmingham First Ward.
The people in his ward who need loving, individual help are never very far from his mind; Bishop Norris carries a list of their names in his day-planner. A busy partner in a high-profile law firm, he pays careful attention to priorities and scheduling—but he scraps the schedule when the Spirit whispers that someone needs him somewhere else right now. Many of his most rewarding moments in touching people’s lives have come when he stepped out of a meeting or changed his plans in response to a spiritual prompting.
Bishop Norris reaches out to individuals—and teaches ward leaders to do the same—because he loves them. But by doing so he is also responding to direction from the stake presidency, who in turn are following counsel from the North America Southeast Area Presidency about how to function as true shepherds to their flock.
Stake president Barry Seidel testifies that inspiration comes as stake, ward, and branch leaders prayerfully concentrate on individuals’ needs rather than on organizational or program concerns. This kind of shepherding brought ten men into the Melchizedek Priesthood at a recent stake conference. It has also increased the number of missionaries from the stake as young people of mission age have been reactivated.
“Airborne,” Not “Chairborne”
The key to getting results, President Seidel says, is for members of the stake presidency to be “airborne,” not “chairborne”—in other words, to be “out there interviewing.” Stake leaders now devote part of every ward or branch conference to visits with less-active members. “Shepherding teams”—a member of the stake presidency or a high councilor accompanied by local leaders—visit one or more prayerfully chosen less-active members.
These visits, usually about half an hour, have three purposes. They provide an opportunity to express love personally for the individual and to invite the person back to church. The shepherding teams also try to find out if the individual has concerns about Church participation that may need follow-up. Then, they call Melchizedek or potential Melchizedek Priesthood holders to one of three committees in the local quorum or group. (Each Melchizedek Priesthood group in the stake is organized into committees on missionary work, family history and temple work, and perfecting the Saints; every quorum member is on a committee.)
When the proper spiritual preparation has been made, the influence of the Spirit is so strong during these shepherding visits that everyone present can feel it, President Seidel says. Afterward, the shepherding teams return to the meetinghouse for a testimony meeting. This lets ward, branch, and quorum leaders savor the spiritual success they have just tasted.
The responsibility for continued shepherding visits is then left to the local leaders.
A Way of Life
For some leaders, commitment to helping others seems instinctive.
Melvin Shafer, Jr., is the leader of the Melchizedek Priesthood in the Anniston Ward and a captain in the United States Army. Despite his calling and his rank, he prefers to be known simply as “Shaf” to Church members with whom he works.
When Shaf was called to his position, he sat down with the bishop and talked about each person under his stewardship. The two of them received spiritual direction with regard to specific people, and they wrote down the ideas that came to them. Then Shaf asked the bishop for the names of five men most ready for reactivation, and he began to work with them. One has moved away, but two of these men have now come back to the Church, and progress has been made with a third.
Shaf does whatever is necessary to help people reach their full spiritual potential. Patting him affectionately on the arm, his wife, Cathy, says, “This guy loves to home teach. He’d do it every night if he could.” But Shaf points out that the reactivation successes he has witnessed have come through the combined efforts of many people. He says anyone can achieve the same results simply by “putting in the time” to meet others’ needs.
The Spirit Sets the Pace
Often, the Spirit of the Lord works on the less-active member and the activator at the same time.
When Bishop Terrell Amos of the Anniston Ward asked David Gregory to think about preparing for a mission, David stopped coming to church regularly. But he couldn’t forget what the bishop had said.
Mark Henscheid, ward Young Men president, was reminded by a stake leader that his call included working with the less-active. So a visit to David was already on Mark’s agenda when David called one night. “Hi,” he said. “Remember me?”
Mark didn’t stop at helping David come back into regular activity. In reading some poetry David had written, Mark sensed some of David’s special needs and helped find ways for the gospel and people in the Church to meet them. Mark also helped David stay close to good role models among young men and other members in the ward. Now David is preparing for a mission.
What does David Gregory recommend to help the less-active come back? Follow up, he says. Reach out to them. “Listen to their problems—not just with your ears, but with your heart.”
The heart often reaches further than anyone thought it could.
One Sunday morning in Anniston, fifteen-year-old Jim Pierce of nearby Jacksonville was ordained a teacher by his father, George. Afterward, father and son embraced and shed tears together. Jim was ordained because a diligent seminary teacher had reached out to him, and George was able to ordain him partly because his son had responded to that teacher.
Ralph Carmode hadn’t recognized Jim Pierce’s name when it showed up on his seminary roll. But Ralph had enrolled every LDS student at Jacksonville High in seminary a year earlier, and he was determined to leave no one uncontacted this year.
When Ralph showed up at his house, George Pierce had not attended church regularly for some time. But he realized that seminary could be a good thing for his son. He told Jim that early-morning transportation could be arranged if Jim wanted to attend. Ralph remembers being moved to tell Jim, “I promise you that if you’ll come out to seminary, you’ll receive blessings, and your life will change.”
A top student at his high school, Jim quickly became one of the best-prepared students in the seminary class. He began to attend Church meetings regularly with his mother, and that led to his advancement in the priesthood. Later, Jim’s activity helped motivate his father to start attending church more regularly.
The Value of Visiting
Lewis Wilson knows how important it is to keep close to less-active members. That’s how someone helped him come back into full activity. Later, he was called as president of the Birmingham Third Branch—the stake’s inner-city unit.
While he was branch president, Lewis used a three-step approach to helping less-active members come back. First, he would pray for them. Then, he would visit them—not always to teach, sometimes just to let them know he was thinking of them. Last, he would pray with them. It was better if they would say the prayer, he says. “If they’re willing to say a prayer, they’re willing to try to change.”
Lewis took the direct approach—he would ask them what problem was keeping them from coming to church. Then he would help them work through it. Sometimes his message to the less-active was simply that “coming back to Christ is so important that they must sacrifice worldly things.” He urged them to learn to hear the voice of the Lord in their lives and follow Him.
Multiplying the Harvest
Lives frequently become intertwined as people reach out to touch a less-active member.
Joe Browning was baptized into the Church in his teens, then dropped away. After his divorce a short time ago, he wanted to come back. But he would sit in his mother’s home, on a hill overlooking the Gadsden Ward meetinghouse, and think, “I don’t belong there. I’ve been gone too long.”
Alicia Myers, also from the Gadsden Ward, helped convince him that he was wrong. She and Joe met at a Single Adult activity in Birmingham. (Joe had been told of the activity by a friend who was reactivated while Ralph Allred was bishop.) Alicia became a pillar of strength for Joe, helping him through many spiritual trials. A number of others helped, too, including Ralph Allred, now Joe’s priesthood leader; the ward’s bishop, George Walker; and the bishop’s brother and counselor, Charlie Walker. One day the bishop went out of his way to make a comment that still sticks in Joe’s mind: “You know, I pray for you.” And Charlie Walker found a way each Sunday to express his love. “People made me feel like they wanted me here,” Joe says.
Joe was one of those ten men ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood at that recent stake conference.
Richard Mewbourne of the Birmingham Second Ward endured tormenting back pain to ride to that conference so he could be interviewed for advancement in the priesthood. The pain was endurable because of what the Church has come to mean to him again.
A fourth-generation Alabama Latter-day Saint, Richard had become less active before the auto accident that nearly killed him in 1987. During the months of treatment and hospital stays, Richard pondered why he had lived through the accident. Life became sweeter as he began reading the scriptures again and turned to the gospel. His family, and service to others, became more important than selfish interests. He began to move back toward activity.
The love of other members helped draw him in. That love was demonstrated graphically when circumstances forced the Mewbournes to move shortly after he had back surgery. He had been told not to lift anything. Men from his priesthood quorum, alerted by the missionaries (who were frequent visitors to the Mewbournes), showed up “six deep” to help. They allowed Richard to touch nothing, and the move was completed in one trip. The experience was gratifying to Richard, and it was both touching and surprising for his wife, who is not a member of the Church.
She told Richard recently that she sees something different about him now. He senses this difference in an inner peace that he believes comes from living the gospel and sharing the love he feels from the Lord and from others.
The Rewards of Caring
Stories like these go on and on in the Birmingham stake—stories of people who don’t let time or Church unit boundaries stop them from reaching out to others.
Bill Arnold is grateful for priesthood leaders who worked with him, even though he came back to the wrong ward and stake at first. As Bill was reactivated, his wife and stepdaughter were converted. So were his stepfather, mother, grandmother, and younger brother.
Linda Vance married a member of another church and reared her daughter in it. But, she says, “I had home teachers who kept up with me for—goodness gracious—twenty years.” A faithful friend who helped Linda keep her identity as a Latter-day Saint and a young missionary filled with love were among those who helped bring her back.
Sue Standridge and Glenda Cunningham, sisters, also had persistent friends. “Even though we showed no interest in going to church, they didn’t let us forget that the Church hadn’t forgotten about us,” Sue says. Over the years, visiting teachers, home teachers, missionaries, priesthood leaders, and other members continued to reach out to them. Sue came back first, then Glenda.
What would they tell others who are trying to win back less-active friends or loved ones?
“I would tell them not to give up,” even when they feel there’s no hope, Glenda advises. “I often think, ‘Where would I be if they had given up on me?’”