Leaders of the Olathe Kansas Stake emphasize that every organization, every class, and every activity be directed toward meeting people’s needs—particularly the needs of the less active and those who are not Church members. As a result, stake leaders and members plan activities with an eye toward fellowshipping and building friendships, and they go out of their way to extend callings to fit members’ talents and circumstances.
Stake president Nathan Y. Jarvis believes that when Church members take their baptismal covenants to heart, they will actively try to draw others into the fold. “Our covenants deal with bearing the burdens of others and standing as witnesses of God at all times,” he says. “If we are truly reaching out in friendship and bearing others’ burdens, we will see our membership increase.”
Leaders frequently plan activities to help the less active and those who are not members to overcome their inhibitions toward the Church. “It’s not always effective to immediately invite someone to attend church; in fact, that can be somewhat intimidating,” says President Jarvis. “It can be more comfortable for people to be introduced to the Church and to other members by attending an activity.” Service activities are particularly worthwhile.
John Pickering learned firsthand the effectiveness of service both as a recipient and as a participant in service activities. His wife, Melody, had joined the Church in 1979, three years after they were married, but because he didn’t share her interest in the Church, she soon became less active. Brother Pickering, a deeply but privately religious man, found that many of his own beliefs mirrored the teachings of the Church. However, he did not feel ready to make the kind of commitment that baptism would entail.
In 1999, missionaries stopped by the Pickerings’ house “out of the blue,” says Sister Pickering. The couple’s two teenage daughters, Danielle and Ashley, agreed to listen to the discussions with their mother, but Brother Pickering declined. For several nights he would nod and say hello when the missionaries visited and would then go outside to prepare the house to be painted.
When the missionaries asked Brother Pickering if they could help him paint, he consented. To his surprise, on the appointed day, not only did the two young missionaries appear but also half a dozen other men from the Ottawa Ward. In only three hours the painting was finished.
“It was overwhelming to see so many people show up,” recalls Brother Pickering. “I had no reason to think it wouldn’t be just the two missionaries.”
Sister Pickering, too, was surprised by the friendliness of ward members. The family had long felt a lack of connection with their neighbors and lived far from extended family, so the warmth and inclusion they felt was a new and welcome experience.
It wasn’t long before Danielle and Ashley were baptized and Sister Pickering became active again. A short time later, Brother Pickering also entered the waters of baptism. All three say it was the Spirit of the Lord and the doctrines of the gospel that converted them, but the fellowshipping of ward members reinforced their sense of belonging in their new religion.
Brother Pickering has since joined with ward members in extending service to others. Among other activities, he has helped cut down dead trees, cleaned out a yard, and helped several families move.
“Service builds fellowship,” he says. “When you’re helping someone move, you’re not just moving boxes; you’re also talking and laughing with each other. You develop a bond that you wouldn’t develop just by going to church on Sunday.”
Targeting Activities to Specific Interests
Leaders have found it to be particularly helpful if an activity is specifically targeted to an individual’s or family’s interests. Such an activity was one of many factors that contributed to the activation of the Heinitz family, members of the Kansas City Third Ward. Less active for many years, Dennis and Joyce Heinitz attempted to come back to Church when their daughter, Janet, was baptized, but they didn’t feel a sense of belonging in their ward. Soon they returned to the ranks of the less active.
Seven years later, when their son, Aaron, neared the age of baptism, the family discussed their desire to return to full activity again. Their bishop, Jon Andersen, felt prompted to visit the family and invite them back. With his encouragement, and with the support of longtime home and visiting teachers, the Heinitz family started attending meetings again.
This time, says Brother Heinitz, “The hand of fellowship was offered to us from the beginning.” Soon the family—all four of whom have black belts in karate—were asked to demonstrate their skills in martial arts to the Young Men and Young Women. On the night of the program, the cultural hall was filled to capacity not only with young people but also with other members of the ward.
“Afterward everybody came up and talked to us, asked where we’d been, how things had been going,” Janet Heinitz says, smiling at the memory.
“We’re not sure if we were that good or if they were just starved for entertainment,” adds Brother Heinitz with a laugh.
Throughout the years Brother Heinitz was asked to participate in Scout camps by teaching classes on gun safety and outdoor skills. The friendships he forged during these experiences helped make it easier for him to make the transition to full activity in the ward, where all members of the Heinitz family now regularly attend.
Building Genuine Friendships
Friendship is an essential ingredient in ministering to the needs of the Saints, President Jarvis affirms. “It goes back to President Hinckley’s great counsel: new converts and less-active members need a friend.”
Often these friendships are nudged forward by missionaries or ward leaders, such as through home or visiting teaching assignments. When members develop these “assignments” into relationships based on genuine caring and concern—not conditional upon a desired outcome—conversion and retention are often the natural results.
Marise Markham has had such a friend in NaDene Bartholomew. The two women were first introduced to each other in 1998, when the full-time missionaries asked Sister Bartholomew, a member of the Olathe Third Ward, to attend the final discussion with Sister Markham, then an investigator. As the women chatted, Sister Bartholomew mentioned that she went walking at the nearby mall most mornings. Sister Markham was interested in starting a walking program herself, so soon thereafter—not long after Sister Markham was baptized—the two were walking together every morning. They often discussed the gospel as they walked, and Sister Bartholomew willingly answered Sister Markham’s many questions, helping to solidify Sister Markham’s fledgling testimony.
“If people were to think about converts, OK, you’re baptized; now you’re on your own, that would be hard,” says Sister Markham. “But NaDene’s been a big help to me in answering all my questions and being a friend.”
Sister Bartholomew believes it was frequent contact that made a difference, particularly during the crucial first year following Sister Markham’s baptism. When Sister Bartholomew’s children started school in the fall and her schedule grew too full for her to continue the daily walks, she encouraged others in the ward to contact Sister Markham. And she continued to nurture their friendship, helping to teach Sister Markham some of the new-member lessons and eventually escorting her through the temple to receive her endowment. Now, in turn, Sister Markham enthusiastically reaches out to new and less-active members of her ward.
Friendships are particularly helpful when members quietly see a need and then fill it without waiting to be assigned. For example, in 1996 Doug Vance, a member of the Olathe First Ward, noticed that 14-year-old Rebecca Kirkman lacked transportation to early-morning seminary. Rebecca had only recently started to become active in the Church together with her mother, Orita, and younger sister, Elizabeth. Brother Vance was already giving his granddaughter a ride each morning, and he offered to take Rebecca as well—which he did for the remainder of the school year.
The young women in the ward also did their part to help Rebecca feel welcome. Once they gave her a “heart attack”: while she was gone they taped friendly heart-shaped notes around her bedroom. “I still have the hearts,” says Rebecca.
Callings That Fit Talents and Needs
In addition to encouraging friendshipping efforts, leaders in the Olathe stake seek to give inspired callings that fit the specific talents and needs of new or newly activated members.
At the time the Heinitz family drifted away from the Church, they didn’t feel they were making a contribution. “We didn’t have callings; we didn’t have a purpose in the ward, and we began to think, What are we giving to the Church?” says Sister Heinitz.
Sister Heinitz was known for having a gift for working with children. Since coming back, she was called to teach the 10- and 11-year-old girls in Primary. She says her calling has given her a sense of purpose and has helped her better understand gospel principles. “I’m not real knowledgeable about the Church,” Sister Heinitz says. “I have to learn things myself in order to teach them to my girls, so I’m able to learn more of the basics. And I look forward to seeing my girls. Nothing’s more exciting than to come to church and have them give me hugs. I get little notes and letters from them in the mail all the time; it’s just wonderful.”
Through her callings, Sister Markham has also been able to make use of her unique gift for friendliness. Not long after her baptism, she was called to greet the members coming to sacrament meeting. Soon hers was a familiar face as she handed out programs along with handshakes and hugs. She also quickly learned who the members of the ward were, often checking up on those who missed a meeting.
“Small and Simple Things”
Planning activities that encourage fellowshipping, reaching out in genuine friendship, and extending callings targeted to specific talents and abilities—these are basic yet powerful tools in missionary work, activation, and retention. As members participate in and facilitate these efforts, they know they are keeping the sacred covenants they made at baptism of bearing the burdens of others and standing as witnesses of God at all times.
“I have been impressed with the amazing power of basic principles,” says President Jarvis. “As the Book of Mormon tells us, ‘By small and simple things are great things brought to pass’ (Alma 37:6). In today’s environment, we certainly don’t need more complexity. The parting of the Red Sea must have been incredibly impressive, but I believe that the opening of someone’s heart, which most often occurs by small and simple means, is no less impressive.”