In a stake compassing thirty-eight thousand square miles, it would seem an easy thing for straying members to become lost from the fold. But in the vast Great Falls Montana East Stake, no distances—physical or otherwise—muffle the Master’s call to come back. Not surprisingly, that call is a resounding echo both heard and heeded, as priesthood leaders help infuse the stake with the spirit of activation work.
Forty-five years ago, the Frank Wright family moved to Malta, a rural town serving the wheat farms and cattle ranches spread across the rolling plains of north-central Montana. The LDS family hailed from Logan, Utah, where family ties were strong, close friends abounded, and the chapel they seldom attended was a block from their home.
In Malta their lives changed. The Wrights sorely missed the fellowship they had taken for granted, but members in the area were scarce. Then Frank learned of one sister, twenty-five miles away in Saco, whom locals considered to be the nicest woman around. Frank and an LDS friend visited her, and to Frank’s surprise she told him that his arrival fulfilled a missionary’s promise to her a year before: “If you organize a Primary, the priesthood will come.” She did her part (teaching the restored gospel and hymns to some thirty children, nearly all nonmembers), and Frank, fired with newfound purpose, did the rest—and much more.
With the mission president’s permission, Frank rustled up near-forgotten members scattered across the “High Line” country of the Continental Divide and helped revive their faith by holding Sunday School classes in different locations.
The flurry of summer activity led to the organization of the Malta Branch that fall (1948), with Brother Wright sustained as branch president, a position he magnified for more than two decades. Since those early days, Frank and Thelma, now in their eighties, have felt at home. “If it hadn’t been for the pull of the Church,” Sister Wright says, “we wouldn’t have stayed so long in Malta.”
Today the branch has its own chapel. Inspired by the Wrights’ pioneering efforts, President Curtis H. Starr and other Malta Branch members help anchor the stakewide push to make reactivation a top priority. And the team effort is working. Together the stake’s six wards and four branches help bridge barriers between less-active members and their deep-down desires to join with other Saints in full fellowship.
Keeping abreast of the stake’s activation efforts is one of stake president Brian L. Pfile’s fortes. In stake high council meetings, his characteristic geniality disappears while he focuses all his faculties on discussions of activation. All present are moved by his deep concern for the less active and the sense of urgency he instills in high councilors at every turn of discussion—when he reviews stake activation goals, issues challenges, hears reports, asks probing questions, role-plays encounters with less actives, testifies, and receives inspiration.
“He’s a very intense, animated, high-energy person,” says John M. Barger, a counselor to President Pfile. “It’s not unusual for him to remain standing during our meetings. He’s a stickler for details, yet he’s the most people-oriented person I’ve ever worked with. There’s never any question of his love.”
Activated members heartily agree, even those with whom President Pfile, in personal interviews with them, had to take a hard line. One brother so appreciated that loving firmness that he could hardly bear to wait for his next appointment. In another interview, the president’s inspired, forthright words touched a member in ways he’ll never forget. “I felt almost as if the Lord was talking to me. There was no question in my mind what I needed to do,” the brother recalls.
A clue to President Pfile’s approach is written on the chalkboard in the stake high council room: Alma 4:19. The watchword recalls Alma’s reliance on devotion to the ministry and on the power of “pure testimony” as means of reclaiming his erring people. Bold? Not for President Pfile. “He believes that when he’s on the Lord’s errand, he may speak on His behalf,” President Barger says, adding that such an exercise of faith is “incredibly motivating” for less-active members.
Two people thus motivated are Mike and Peggy Bailey. Although Mike had served a full-time mission and he and Peggy had been married in the temple, Mike’s military career with its relocations and weekend shifts “made it easy for us to fall away,” he says, adding that “fire went to embers, and I never let it get hot again.”
That is, until the opening weekend of Montana’s elk season—when heavy snows spoiled Mike’s hunting holiday by keeping him homebound. Next thing he knew, he was church-bound as well, agreeing to a Sunday morning interview with a counselor in the stake presidency. However, President Pfile felt impressed to conduct the interview himself.
Mike recalls: “He sat me down, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Brother Bailey, the Lord is calling your name. He wants to know what side you’re on, what you’re going to do.’” A “spiritual window” opened, and Mike recalled a passage in his patriarchal blessing that confirmed President Pfile’s words. “I knew the Lord had something for me to do. I felt very emotional,” says Mike.
The interview over, Mike’s course was clear to him: “Since I’d led my family down, I needed to lead them back up”—and to the temple. His wife and three sons were receptive. One week later the family attended stake conference and soaked up every word, for “everything seemed directed at us,” Peggy says. That day, for the first time in years, Mike bore his testimony publicly. Later the Baileys returned to the temple as well. Mike is now elders quorum president in the Great Falls Second Ward, and Peggy is a counselor in the Young Women presidency.
President Pfile also relies on his counselors and stake high councilors, who regularly conduct stakewide leadership training seminars aimed at accomplishing the threefold mission of the Church. They also travel great distances to visit less-active families living in far-flung areas of the stake.
Ministering to members in this vast stake means going the proverbial extra mile—literally hundreds of extra miles. For example, once every month President Pfile and stake executive secretary Russ Bawden or a counselor take a fourteen-hour tour of the stake, in which they visit members and conduct stake business. In addition, the president, a traveling salesman whose route crisscrosses the state, does double duty while he’s on the road—professional dealings during the day, stake business after hours.
That degree of commitment has caught on. One branch’s activation plan, “Operation Shepherd,” mobilized the priesthood after the manner of a military maneuver. The objectives were clear, and the small band of elders felt a deep sense of mission. Branch attendance had averaged thirty-five, but after dozens of less-active members were visited and invited back, attendance swelled to fifty.
Those numbers have since settled some, but not activation efforts, which continue to yield encouraging results. For example, as finances permit them, two Native American members and their children journey fifty miles from the Gros Ventre-Assiniboine Reservation to attend branch meetings. And a less-active sister returned to the temple for the first time in nearly forty years.
To help stake leaders better understand members’ spiritual needs, Brother Bawden, who manages a printing store, designed a meticulous system for tracking stake members’ progress before and after baptism.
Among his colorful array of monthly forms are those dealing with activation: accountability reports that include, under the heading “Perfecting the Saints,” items for targeting individuals to activate and for improving home and visiting teaching; and the “B-A-T list,” a key form charting how each ward or branch is helping eight individuals (updated whenever necessary) achieve stake baptism, activation, and temple goals. The reports are distributed to all stake and ward leaders. Thus informed or reminded, they better fulfill their roles in reaching out to less actives.
Beyond that, “we don’t have any flashy activation program,” says President Pfile. “We teach principles, and the rest comes. We try to create an atmosphere of ‘welcome back’ so the Lord can send them back.”
“We simply hold leaders accountable for individuals within their jurisdiction,” explains President Barger. “And if that works well, all the way down to the quorum president, then there’s no need for a special program.”
But if by chance someone is overlooked, inspiration sometimes helps perfect the process. A recent example was when President Pfile was reviewing proposed names for priesthood advancement. Feeling someone had been overlooked, he asked priesthood leaders to reconsider their proposals.
Bishop Wesley D. Gibbs of the Lewiston Ward awoke late that night knowing who merited advancement. A deacon for more than thirty years, Chris Flukiger had recently married, been ordained a priest, and baptized his wife, Lynda. He had also been quietly preparing himself to become an elder. That long-anticipated moment came partly because of diligent priesthood leaders willing to listen to the Spirit.
Once families who move to Great Falls sample its countrified hospitality and life-style, it’s hard for them to leave. This is true for many less-active members who come here on job transfers or on military duty. Almost before they know it, they are welcomed by caring members who open doors to renewed Church activity.
For years in Ogden, Utah, happiness eluded Daryl and Lori Hodges. Lori often pondered a line in her patriarchal blessing that said her life was yet unfulfilled. She and Daryl knew what needed changing, but they were not ready to reorder their lives. In the meantime, one of their daughters, Cami, attended ward meetings faithfully with her friends.
Several years later, Daryl’s work as an electrical technician took him to Great Falls. When Cami turned twelve, the ward Young Women presidency involved her in Beehive activities, and soon she felt at home among her new friends. Her parents were still hesitant to participate, though Lori would occasionally attend ward activities. After Bishop Pat A. Beu became their home teacher, a turning point lay just ahead.
Lori visited her ill grandfather in Utah and was impressed when his bishop’s blessing improved his health. Later, as Lori read to him from a Church magazine, her grandfather pointed out that she had mispronounced President Ezra Taft Benson’s name. Lori’s face flushed red with embarrassment. “I knew then that I needed to learn a lot more about my church,” she remembers.
On Lori’s next visit to her grandfather, she braked so hard to avoid striking a deer that the tires became lopsided, leaving the vehicle undrivable. Moments after her desperate phone call to Daryl, Bishop Beu called to set up a home teaching visit, and when he heard of Lori’s car trouble, he offered assistance. His kind offer to help in their extremity touched the Hodges deeply.
At a recent stake conference, Daryl was ordained an elder. The family anticipates a temple sealing—the capstone of the fulfillment Lori and Daryl have been seeking. “I never dreamed my life would be going like this,” Lori says. Daryl nods in agreement, adding that “warm feelings keep us going to church.” Lori tells about a family home evening in which all family members expressed their love for one another. “We all cried,” she says. “Even Dad!” chimes thirteen-year-old Brian, recently baptized.
Another passage of scripture that clarifies stake leaders’ vision of activation work and deepens their commitment to it is Moroni 7:32, where the Lord’s chosen servants “prepareth the way that the residue of men may have faith in Christ, that the Holy Ghost may have place in their hearts.” [Moro. 7:32]
Be they younger or older, that “golden residue needs to be reclaimed, because we all need each other,” says President Pfile. “Some are not ready, and that’s okay. We welcome them with open arms when they come.”
So popular are the stake’s youth dances that they draw scores of youth, many of whom are less active or nonmembers. The colorfully attired, “live wire” disc jockey is none other than President Pfile himself.
Semiannual youth conferences are another sizzling event for some three hundred youth. In spring they might go spelunking, trap shooting, rappelling, or bicycling along the Missouri River, or toy with ham radios and motorized model airplanes. “We get the most mileage out of the fall conferences,” which are always centered on the mission of the Church, and are “always fine-tuned and top-notch,” says James L. Bellessa, Jr., first counselor in the stake presidency.
“In the testimony meeting at the end, you have to sit and hold on!” says President Pfile. “We’ve never ended on time for eleven years.” First Ward bishop Michael Aderhold remarks how such activities “set a standard that is infectious, stimulating ward members to excel in other ways.”
Other meetings in the stake are equally powerful. Ten-year-old Eric Crimmins and his mother, Linda, attended a testimony meeting in the Lewiston Ward on “Scout Sunday” so Eric could earn a Scouting merit badge. Sister Crimmins, who had not attended church regularly for eighteen years, was touched deeply. She realized the importance of rearing her children in the gospel.
Her home teachers and visiting teachers strengthened her resolve to have a gospel-centered home. She became active in the Church, and Eric was baptized. Now he is an exemplary deacons quorum president, Bishop Gibbs says. Sister Crimmins is Primary president. “I’m amazed that they thought well enough of me to let me work with the children,” she says.
Three years ago, Richard W. Woods, who had not been active in the Church for forty years, invited two passing missionaries into his home. Shortly thereafter, Patricia, his wife—who had been curious about the Church for some time—was baptized. “As she came up out of the water, I was moved upon by a feeling that took my breath away,” Brother Woods recalls. “I knew then that I must find out for myself the truthfulness of the gospel.”
At home with a disability, he read the Book of Mormon avidly, sometimes throughout the whole day. He devoured other standard works and Church books as well. The Woods became active in the Church and were sealed in the Alberta Temple in July 1991; since then, they have returned to the temple many times, eagerly pursuing a new interest—doing family history work. In the course of a year, Brother Woods magnified various ward callings. His most recent calling is as second counselor to Bishop Mark G. Mansfield of the Great Falls Second Ward.
Other stories abound in the stake, whose activation record ranks it among the top ten activating stakes in the United States. That fact surprises the stake presidency, but they’re not scrambling to piece together their recipe for success. Why not? There’s no time nor need to. They’re out visiting members. In fact, just a short time ago President Pfile urged a sister he home teaches to commit to return to the temple after sixty-three years! Update: Her temple trip thrilled her.