President David E. Staples, who presides over the five wards and five branches that make up the Madison Wisconsin Stake, feels strongly that people can—and do—rise to a challenge. “We challenge ward leaders at every meeting, and we challenge members at each stake conference,” he explains. “I never hold a meeting without asking myself, Did we feel the Spirit? Have we taught a principle? Have I issued a challenge concerning the principle? As a result, I know the Saints are doing things they haven’t done before.”
In fact, stake members’ willingness to serve in new ways has helped open doors into many homes and lives. One of several challenges issued to members at a recent stake conference was simply to invite friends over for a visit once a month. Such simple but effective goals have helped increase love and friendship among members of the stake, which is located in the green, rolling hills of south-central Wisconsin. Coupled with challenges to leaders to better train home and visiting teachers, prepare families for temple blessings, and extend callings to more ward members, this stake’s effort is helping more people find their way back to Church activity. The following stories, some of many to be found in the Madison stake, typify what happens when leaders and members are willing to take on a challenge.
The Lake Mills Branch lies 60 miles due east of Madison. Branch president Charles Ottosen looks forward to President Staples’s monthly bishops’ training meeting because of the spiritual uplift and motivation he receives. He wants to take that enthusiasm into the homes of branch members. “As a presidency, we set a goal to follow and apply challenges issued by the stake president,” says President Ottosen.
Given the goal to work with less-active members in his area, he met with his counselors and elders quorum president Chris Carruthers and came up with a program to train home and visiting teachers so they could better help families. “We asked them to choose a focus family,” he explains, “then to seek out opportunities to make a difference with that family, to be a friend. Once the social bridge is built, spiritual bridges follow.”
The life of one young single adult, Denise Zelechowski, changed dramatically as a result of one family’s following that advice.
One morning after working a night shift, Denise quietly let herself into the apartment she shared with three roommates. It was six in the morning, and as she stepped through the door, she stopped short. As many as 20 people lay sprawled in drunken slumber around the room. Feeling sick at the sight, she made her way to her room, quickly shut the door, and fell into bed. She wondered, not for the first time, how her choices had brought her to this.
After high school, Denise’s family had moved hundreds of miles away, but she’d elected to stay behind in Lake Mills. Looking back, she recalls there had been an offer from a Latter-day Saint family to live with them, but she was excited to be on her own and went to live with friends instead. The first time Denise got up early on Sunday morning to attend church, she got strange looks from her roommates. Soon they were dissuading her from attending at all. “Come and party,” they insisted.
Gradually she found herself pulled into a lifestyle foreign to her values. For two long years she lived with her friends. “But I was miserable,” Denise says now, looking back on those days. “I thought I wanted my freedom. I soon found the world’s freedom brought bondage. I had a big void inside me, and I realized the world could not fill that void.”
One day she started making a list of things she felt were wrong in her life—things she wanted to change. “I knew if I did not change soon, I would get into trouble.” Soon after, her roommates were expelled from their apartment; one was arrested, and another faced a lawsuit. Feeling more alone than ever, Denise stayed briefly in a friend’s house, where her visiting teacher, Jackie Groesbeck, came to visit her.
“Come live with our family,” offered Sister Groesbeck.
Denise hesitated for several weeks. During those weeks she often played a music video by an LDS performer, and she felt the Spirit each time she listened to the reassuring words of hope and peace it carried. “Although I felt Father in Heaven wouldn’t want to listen to me, I finally prayed,” she explains. “My heart was touched by the words to the song on the video. I knew I wanted to be different from my friends and I needed Father in Heaven to help me.” As a result of praying for direction, Denise received a strong feeling she ought to reconsider the Groesbecks’ offer. Finally she asked, “Is your offer still open?”
It was, and she moved in. It was a turning point in her life, one for which she is ever grateful. “I saw how their family lived in peace together,” she says. “I began to feel better almost immediately.”
What had moved the Groesbecks to make such an offer? They had listened to and accepted President Ottosen’s challenge to find a focus family. “We decided we should pray about our home and visiting teaching assignments and really expect some answers and let ourselves be led in this work,” says Brother Groesbeck. “My wife and I talked about finding a focus family. Each of us prayed individually and came up with three names of people we should focus on. We both listed Denise.”
With their focus families selected, the Groesbecks gave much thought and prayer to how they might reach out and help them. During this time, Brother Groesbeck thought back to the rich missionary experiences he’d once enjoyed. “I wondered why we couldn’t have some of the same kinds of meaningful experiences in our home teaching.”
Sister Groesbeck agreed. “We often went out to make the same routine visits to less-active members. Nothing ever happened, which was frustrating. Then we began to ask, ‘What do we want to have happen?’” This question helped them look closely for ways to reach out. Their quest took them to their knees in prayer once again.
“With Heavenly Father’s help, we began to set goals,” says Brother Groesbeck. “Then, when we went into homes, we expected spiritual experiences to happen.”
The Groesbecks also began praying twice a day as a family for the people on their list. One day Brother Groesbeck asked, “If we are praying for these people, then maybe we should be willing to do more than pray. What can we do to help them?”
That was when they felt they should open their door to Denise. They had recently sent a son on a mission and had a spare room she could use temporarily. They helped her move in.
“With their help, I slowly began to crawl out of the hole I was in,” Denise says. “I went to the branch president. He helped me feel that Father in Heaven would help me.”
Because the Groesbecks accepted President Ottosen’s challenge, Denise found help at an important crossroad in her life. Today she is serving as a missionary in the Arizona Tucson Mission.
Bishop Wayne Buchanan of the Beloit Ward also accepted a challenge from President Staples: to seek out men who could be advanced in the priesthood and prepared to be sealed in the temple. Prayerfully Bishop Buchanan looked at many less-active families. One of them was the family of Donnie and Karen Gardner.
The Gardners had moved to Janesville, about a 30-minute ride from the Beloit Ward meetinghouse, a year before. Although Brother Gardner had been a member of the Church for nearly 15 years, most of that time he had been less active. “I went to church right after I was baptized, but the meeting seemed very noisy, and as a Vietnam vet, I was extrasensitive to noise levels at the time and couldn’t take it. I didn’t go back, and no one came looking for me then.” A few years later he met and married his wife, Karen, who was not a member of the Church. Ten years went by, and from time to time people from the Church did visit, but neither Donnie nor Karen was interested.
“We had a lot of challenges in our lives,” Donnie explains. “We had Word of Wisdom and marital problems, and then Karen came down with cancer.” During the time Karen was successfully treated for cancer, the family moved to Albuquerque, where Donnie stayed with his brother Barry, who had baptized him. While there, his brother encouraged him to begin attending church, and soon Donnie’s son Bryan wanted to be baptized. As a result, Donnie began to feel the Spirit in his life again.
“My heart was softened about life,” he recalls. Soon after, Karen joined the Church also. They attended faithfully for a short time but again drifted away. Members visited and encouraged the two of them to go to the temple, but both were still struggling with the Word of Wisdom and just didn’t feel ready.
“One day I was out in the garage, when I felt strongly that I needed to take Karen and move back to her hometown in Wisconsin,” recalls Donnie. As a result, the couple moved to Janesville, a beautiful town nestled among gently rolling hills dotted with dairy farms. After attending the Beloit Ward once or twice, Donnie felt it was too far away to attend regularly, especially since it was football season. He didn’t go back.
Then Bishop Buchanan came to visit them. “You need to come to church,” said Bishop Buchanan. “We want you there.”
“I have things to overcome,” said Donnie.
“We’ll help you,” replied the bishop.
Donnie was impressed when Bishop Buchanan did, in fact, help. “He followed through on things that were important to us,” says Donnie. “One day he asked me how I was doing with the Word of Wisdom. I said I was doing great … except for one item. He kept challenging me, telling me it would be OK. ‘Just continue to fight this,’ he said.”
Visiting teachers Tamara Ashby and Seija (say-ah) Galbraith began to visit Karen. “I sensed Karen was very spiritual,” says Tamara. “We always left a spiritual message, and often I noted there were tears in her eyes.”
One day when the visiting teachers arrived, Donnie stayed and chatted with them for a few minutes. He explained to them that he felt the meetinghouse was too far away to attend regularly and that he didn’t feel very welcomed there anyway. “Don’t be a wimp,” responded Seija with a twinkle in her eye. “If you don’t want to go to church, any excuse will do.”
Her words stung and made him think. He, a Vietnam vet, had faced tougher challenges than driving 30 minutes to church. His son had started attending the Wednesday evening Young Men activities, and suddenly Donnie realized that for his family’s sake he needed to accept Seija’s and Bishop Buchanan’s separate challenges to attend church. He and Karen went the following Sunday and have continued faithfully ever since. Donnie was soon ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, and he and Karen have been sealed in the temple.
“Challenging us to make changes really helped us,” says Karen.
In an effort to involve more members in ward activity, the stake had challenged ward leaders to try to extend only one calling to a person. Bishop Buchanan, along with others in the Madison stake, began to consider families with less-active members to fill vacancies. One of these was the Thomas family.
Stacey Thomas met Marja, a Latter-day Saint sister, in California while he was stationed there in the service. Soon they were married and Stacey joined the Church, but he was immediately shipped overseas for a year and stopped attending church. Upon his discharge, he took Marja to live near his parents in Beloit, located near the Illinois border. He went to church a few times with her but didn’t feel comfortable with anyone there. His parents, unfamiliar with their son’s new religion, often invited the two of them to attend Sunday family get-togethers. He and Marja stopped attending regularly.
Eugene Smith, a dairy farmer, was assigned to home teach the Thomas family. Following the example of ward and stake leaders to teach a principle, feel the Spirit, and issue a challenge, Eugene left a spiritual message in the Thomas home during every visit and always extended invitations to the Thomases to attend ward activities. They responded to his offers of friendship.
“I felt I had some things in common with Eugene,” says Stacey. “We became friends. Then one day his new home burned down. I wanted to help him rebuild it. When I did so, I met other men from the elders quorum and began making friends with ward members.”
That was a beginning. Shortly afterward, the Relief Society needed a new teacher. When the president could not find an active sister to call, the bishop suggested she consider every woman in the ward, not just those who attended regularly. Marja’s name was selected, and the call was issued.
Marja readily accepted. “I felt I’d lost part of myself when I quit attending church,” she explains. “Church had been the one stable thing in my world, and I seemed to have lost it. I didn’t realize that was my problem until I came back to church.”
Stacey, however, still found himself going along with his parents on their weekend activities. One day Marja told him they needed to start going back to church so they could eventually be sealed in the temple. “I realized I had to change. Church attendance had to be a commitment,” he says. “I finally helped my parents see that church would need to come first if we were going to improve our lives.” Once he had clearly set his priorities, his parents respected his Sabbath-day activities.
Later, Bishop Buchanan challenged Stacey to prepare to become an elder and told him what he needed to do. “That really pushed Stacey to begin growing spiritually,” says Marja. “The spiritual glow on his face when he came home told me the time had finally come for him to move forward in the gospel.” A short time later he was ordained an elder, and soon he and Marja were sealed in the temple.
“My call to teach Relief Society helped me return to church,” explains Marja. “Then I wanted my family to attend with me. Knowing we were really needed in the ward made it easier to come back.”
Giving challenges in the Madison Wisconsin Stake has significantly motivated leaders and members alike to reach greater heights. Accepting those challenges has changed the lives of many formerly less-active members, such as Denise Zelechowski, Donnie and Karen Gardner, and Stacey and Marja Thomas.
And President Staples is still asking his counselors after each meeting, “Did we feel the Spirit? Have we taught a principle? Have we issued a challenge concerning the principle?” In Madison, Wisconsin, the answer is “yes!”