Charles and Betsy Bissell have two dogs and a cat, so they see veterinarian Jack Eichelberger often. During the Christmas holidays in 1996, as they sat in the waiting room, 76-year-old Charles noted several copies of the Book of Mormon with a small sign: “If you’d like to give yourself a Christmas gift, take one of these home and read it.”
“I started reading the Book of Mormon in the office,” remembers Brother Bissell, now a stake missionary. “Something came over me, and I just wanted to read and read. When I finished it, I knew it was true, but I had questions.”
Betsy became interested, and the Bissells brought their questions back to the vet along with their pets. Soon, Brother Eichelberger, bishop of the Florence Oregon Ward in the Coos Bay Oregon Stake, asked the Bissells if they would like to listen to the missionary lessons. They agreed and were baptized several months later.
However, for the Bissells, as for all new members, baptism is simply the first step in the ongoing process of becoming a Latter-day Saint. Priesthood leaders and ward members play an important role in providing support. New converts need to feel a part of their ward family through receiving friendship, sharing their talents in building up the kingdom of God through a Church calling, and continuing to grow in their gospel knowledge through being “nourished by the good word of God” (Moro. 6:4), just as President Gordon B. Hinckley has counseled (see “Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep,” Ensign, May 1999, 108).
The Bissells found all three—friends, a calling, and gospel knowledge—in the Florence Oregon Ward. Their circle of friends quickly grew from the Eichelbergers to include others, partly because of their first Church job: greeters on Sunday morning. They became grounded in the gospel, in part because Brother Bissell, an avid reader of Church books, continually adds to a list of more than 35 books he has read and they have discussed.
Charles and Betsy went to the temple one year after their baptism. “No sooner had I read the Book of Mormon than I dove into family history,” says Brother Bissell. Now the Bissells focus on helping new converts with their family history.
“We have really gained something since we joined the Church, and we are comfortable here,” says Betsy. “The blessings of temple and family history work fill our lives with joy.”
Part of the reason for the successful conversion of the Bissells was the tracking of their progress by priesthood leaders. Bishop Eichelberger used the standard form, the Convert Baptism Checklist, in priesthood executive committee meeting and in ward council meeting. Nineteen items are listed, such as the date of the missionary discussions, enrollment in the Gospel Principles class, and ordination to the Aaronic Priesthood. This checklist guided their discussion of the progress of the Bissells the first year after baptism, as it should each new convert.
Under Bishop Eichelberger’s direction, the ward mission leader, Kurt Matthia, completes this form for potential converts. Once a name is on the list, he draws upon all ward resources to help the person. Names remain on the list until the converts go to the temple. Because this process is firmly in place in the Florence Oregon Ward, convert retention is high.
“We go over the list every month in priesthood executive committee meeting, and we ask how we can help our new members,” says Bishop Eichelberger. “Our stake president expects us as bishops to keep this checklist current. We report everything in writing. This helps. We get the home teachers and visiting teachers involved early. Our new members get a Church calling right away.”
Throughout the Church, however, keeping track of converts is more than just a bookkeeping effort. Member involvement adds the essential personal component.
“There is a difference between ministering and administering,” says Brother Matthia. “We use the Church’s standard forms and checklists from the distribution center and follow the program outlined in the handbook, but we also reach out in love to them. We continue visiting them after the six new-member discussions are done and until they have become friends with their home teachers, visiting teachers, and other ward members.”
In Florence, personal attention to investigators is high because ward members become involved early in the conversion process. “The Matthias helped us find members to team up with us,” says Sara Westenskow, former sister missionary in the Florence ward. “By the time investigators were baptized, members and converts cared about each other.”
Other proactive measures help. At baptisms, the Bissells give a presentation on doing baptisms for deceased ancestors, and later they help new members use the Family History Center. Home teachers and visiting teachers attend the Gospel Principles class with the converts. Firesides are held for new members to help teach them about such things as patriarchal blessings or the importance of preparing to attend the temple. And a small lending library of basic Church books is available.
“One of the reasons we are having a degree of success is because this ward is so incredibly loving,” says Teri Ellison, who serves as a stake missionary with her husband. “We are small in number, but we have great people here. Many of them are retired and have come from other states. People care and open their arms to these new converts.”
For example, when Bob Potter was baptized in April 1998, he already knew most of the people in the ward. Hospitalized earlier for a bleeding ulcer, Bob had nearly died. Knowing he was a widower with few family members nearby, Church members made sure he always had company. As a result, they got to know and love each other.
“Even if only one person was there from the ward, I felt like the Church was there,” says Bob. “I relied on the priesthood. These men are so caring; it is a living love. I was drawn into it.”
Now Bob is taking the temple preparation class. He is only one of many who have benefitted from the love and fellowshipping of ward members. Brother Matthia says: “Most members in this ward are active and successful in life. They have the confidence to go out of their way to help struggling new converts. It works. Those who have had ward members help them are thriving.”
Running a successful Italian restaurant comes naturally to Maria Bono Steil. Gregarious and generous, Maria loves people and is a great cook. All was going well until early 1998 when a series of events resulted in the loss of the restaurant.
Devastated, she searched for understanding. After seeing a television spot sponsored by the Church, Maria sent for the video The Lamb of God. Sister missionaries Adrien Oberman and Sara Westenskow brought it to her. Soon Maria’s husband, Jim, and daughter Kandi were participating in the discussions.
“Once I found out about our premortal life, I understood that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ really care about us,” says Maria. “I realized that we aren’t just left here alone. That made all the difference. Kandi and I were ready to be baptized.”
Jim, however, had many preconceived ideas about Latter-day Saints that had to be overcome. “Sister Oberman and Sister Westenskow found an answer for every one of my questions,” he says. “That’s what made the difference for me.”
The family was baptized in August 1998, and a year later they went to the temple to receive the temple ordinances.
“The happiness is ours,” says Maria. “And, thanks to help from the Bissells, we had identified many of my ancestors from Sicily, so we could perform the temple work for them.”
Now, with their new Italian restaurant thriving in Florence, the Steils are grateful for the gospel and for the members of the Florence Ward who have helped them get back on their feet.
“New members need to be loved and know that their brothers and sisters care,” says Maria, who loves to speak at baptisms. “Food warms the body and the heart. I feed new members in my restaurant and invite them into my heart; then they feel good and warm inside too.”
Sheela Matthia, who serves as a stake missionary with her husband, says, “The Steils made friends easily, they were called to serve as stake missionaries soon after their baptism, and they continue to learn through reading, watching Church videos, and asking questions.” They had a friend, a Church calling, and nourishing “by the good word of God,” just as President Hinckley said.
“The thing that holds the Church together is the Spirit of the Holy Ghost and the fellowship among people,” says Brother Matthia. “Once people feel that, they don’t want to be separated from it. So the goal has to be for converts to feel the Spirit. Checklists and books bring them to the point where they can experience the Spirit. Everything we do is geared toward that end.”
As it goes in the Florence Oregon Ward, so it goes elsewhere in the Church. New members are blessed as priesthood leaders and members listen to the prophet and follow his direction. And because everyone is committed to the same thing, they find a way to make it work. When the work of the Lord is done for the right reasons with the Spirit, it produces extraordinary results.