Latter-day Saints in the Omaha Nebraska Stake are employing unique ways of reaching out to less-active members and retaining those who are active. By encouraging specific members to meet regularly with stake leaders, aggressively searching out members whose whereabouts are unknown, and holding brief Sunday services in families’ homes, the stake is seeing people’s lives change as they turn their hearts more fully to the gospel.
The interview process is the focal point of the stake’s efforts in activation and retention, explains Arthur Taylor, president of the stake. Prospective elders ranging the full spectrum of activity are invited to meet with a member of the stake presidency, who calls them to receive the blessings of the Melchizedek Priesthood. If the individual accepts the call, the interviewer discusses with him what he needs to do to prepare, and a date for his ordination is agreed upon. Follow-up interviews are scheduled every three to four weeks until the member is ordained.
“If we ordain, we retain,” says President Taylor. “We put as much work into retaining members as into reactivating them.”
The interview process is adapted for sisters and youth, who typically meet with their bishops to prepare for entering the temple to receive their endowment or do baptisms for the dead.
“The interview is really a call to repent, but we do it by inviting them to prepare to be ordained or to receive an ordinance,” President Taylor explains. “About half accept the call. Half think they’re not worthy, so we explain to them that the Savior knows about their worthiness, but he loves them and wants them to accept a call to improve. Often this is a turning point for them—they receive a new vision of who they are. Ultimately, about 19 out of 20 will make some commitment to change.” President Taylor stresses that while numbers and lists of names are important, “you can’t save a statistic; you can only save a soul.”
Two souls who have benefitted from the interview process are Shirley and Conrad “Ace” Acebedo of the Millard Ward. Shirley was baptized in 1960 and raised her four children in the Church, but after marrying Ace, who was not a member, in 1988—the second marriage for both—she became less active. She continued to faithfully fulfill her callings in Primary or Relief Society but would quickly return home after required meetings. “I would tell Ace, ‘I’m not very strong in the Church, but I know it’s true,’” she says.
Ace welcomed Church members into their home, and his feelings about the Church grew increasingly positive. Soon the couple began meeting with the missionaries. Then, in December 1996, the stake executive secretary called and asked if they would meet with President Taylor. “We looked at each other immediately and I said, ‘Uh-oh, you’ve got another calling,’” Ace remembers. He had always been included in Shirley’s interviews with the bishop whenever she was extended a new calling.
When the couple met with President Taylor, however, they were unprepared for what he would say: “I’d like to call you, Brother Acebedo, to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood.”
“I about fell off my chair,” says Shirley. She was shocked still further when her husband consented.
“The way President Taylor explained it to me, there was no ‘maybe’ if I wanted the blessings of the Lord,” Ace states matter-of-factly.
He and Shirley completed the discussions with the missionaries, and Ace set a baptismal date. After his baptism, Shirley became “100 percent” active. She is now serving as a Relief Society teacher. Ace has been ordained an elder and is serving as an assistant executive secretary in their ward.
Like the 1846 pioneers preparing to resume their journey to Zion while encamped at Winter Quarters—in what is now north Omaha—members of the Omaha stake are helping those around them resume their journey back to Christ. As they have sought to accomplish this goal, they have made a concerted effort to locate less-active members whose whereabouts are unknown. “This process is filled with the spirit of the Atonement,” says President Taylor. “We don’t care what they’ve done or where they’ve been; all we want to do is find them. It’s at the forefront of the Savior’s mandate to leave the ninety and nine and find the one.”
In 1997 members throughout the stake were given assignments to locate people by visiting last-known addresses, scanning public records, and searching telephone books and on-line telephone directories. That year nearly 300 members were located.
Although at first the program was met with resistance by some active members, many soon caught the spirit of the work. Robert and Lorri Hirst initially were involved in going to members’ homes, and now Brother Hirst, as assistant stake executive secretary, is involved in the meticulous recordkeeping that is required. He’s seen the reaction of many members of the stake change from “Who thought of this?” to “This isn’t so bad” and finally to “This is fun!”
Some wards in the Omaha stake are staging ward dinners at which the honored guests are less-active members who have been found. “It’s a nice way of letting them know we care about them and are grateful to have them with us,” says Robert Omer, second counselor in the stake presidency. At the banquets the guests are introduced to the leadership in their respective wards. The event, President Omer says, “prepares them for the interview [with a member of the stake presidency] and helps them feel more comfortable with coming to church on Sunday.” New converts and investigators are also special guests at the banquets.
The process of finding lost members “has become a great spiritual experience for the stake,” says President Taylor. “The spirit of sacrifice is high. Members who gave their hearts to the process have come to a new level of spiritual growth and development.”
Involvement in the effort has helped strengthen the testimonies of many members of the stake, including those who have been on the other side of the activation process.
Matt and Amy Barry of the Rockbrook Ward have participated actively in the activation program. While the two were dating, Matt was less active and Amy was a member of another faith, although nonpracticing. She was baptized during their courtship.
In 1996 the couple were married. For a time Matt remained “pretty standoffish” when it came to the Church. “If I was going to get active again, I was going to do it myself,” he says. But Amy hastens to add that “even when Matt was not fully active, people in the ward made him feel accepted. That was crucial—the feeling of acceptance and people’s genuine care for ward members.
“With all my might and strength I wanted him to be active,” she says. Their differences created some conflicts in their marriage, but “it wasn’t until I concentrated solely on my own activation and stopped worrying about his that he became interested in the Church again.”
Both fully active now, the Barrys were involved in locating lost members last summer. Amy looked for names on the Internet, and Matt visited homes with another ward member. “Knocking on doors was a neat experience; I’d never done that before,” he says. His own background helped him understand the situations of those whom he visited.
Since his own activation, other members of his family have become active, including his mother, and he was able to baptize his brother. And in June 1997, he and Amy were sealed in the St. Louis Missouri Temple.
Another tool stake members use to reach out to less-active members is a brief, gospel-centered service held in the homes of less-active members. Two priesthood holders or Relief Society members will visit a home to sing hymns with the family, share a scripture and short talk, bear testimony, and pray with the family. “These members don’t come to church, so we bring the Church to them,” explains Bishop James Anderson of the Fontanelle Ward.
“Without fail it will bring the Spirit into the home,” says Brent Chapman, elders quorum president in the Fontanelle Ward. “When the Spirit is strongly felt, we talk about gospel subjects and then leave. We don’t stay and talk about the football game or other things that can be distracting.”
Bishop John Anderson of the Benson Ward agrees that it is vital that less-active members feel the Spirit if they are to return to church. He explains that the goal of these home meetings is to remind less-active members why they joined the Church in the first place. “The challenge is to rekindle that fire.”
Leaders and lay members of the Omaha Nebraska Stake are discovering the joy that comes from helping others return to the fold—through interviews, locating lost members, and holding services in members’ homes. What makes the process meaningful, they find, are not primarily the increasing numbers they record, but the changes that result in the life of each soul who comes unto Christ.