“Loving Them Back in Lovell,” Ensign, June 1989, 9
Please, come back.
That is the invitation being extended to less-active members in the Lovell Wyoming Stake. Almost without exception, they are responding positively because of the love that accompanies the invitation and the way the invitation is followed up by priesthood leaders.
If you talk to a few of the members who are in the process of coming back, it quickly becomes apparent that they have been specially prepared for the invitation by the Spirit of the Lord.
“We thought it was about time to get back into the Church,” says Helen Cockrell. Her husband Charles adds that they already had the desire to become active when the invitation was extended, but he doesn’t know why they felt the need to go back to Church after they had not attended regularly for several years. When they were approached, they simply knew it was time.
For Everett and Sharon Hallman, there had been a number of reasons to stay away from the Church. Everett’s work in the oilfields and his activities as a prize-winning off-road racer kept him away frequently. But when their son escaped serious injury in a wreck of Everett’s race car, it gave added impetus to the rethinking of priorities that had already begun in Everett’s mind. “Being number one is short-lived” compared to eternal blessings available through the gospel, he decided. A few months ago, the Hallman family had the opportunity to be sealed in the temple.
When Laurence Asay was asked if he would meet with a member of the stake presidency, his first thought was, “What have I done now?” He had been less-active in the Church for many years. Why did he accept the invitation to come back? He nods toward the four-year-old playing on his living room floor; “I have a young daughter now,” he says, and she wants Daddy to be active in the Church.
Don Bryant recalls that when the invitation came, “the time was right.” As he began to receive instruction, he couldn’t get enough of studying the gospel. His wife Ruth had become used to sitting in the back pew of the chapel with her daughters on Sunday, “feeling like a widow and her two children.” The changes in Don’s life led to the temple sealing of which Ruth had long dreamed.
The first step to coming back into activity for members like these has usually been an invitation to meet with a member of the stake presidency. At that interview, less-active members are assured that they are loved and needed in the Church, and they are given a calling—to become active again. They are asked if they will attend a series of lessons on Sunday evenings to refresh their knowledge of the gospel and prepare them to receive additional gospel blessings. If the prospect of an informal class setting is too intimidating, they are asked if someone can come to teach them in their homes. In more than a year since the Lovell stake began this reactivation program, only two people have turned down one of these invitations.
“I think one of the nicest things that’s happened to me since becoming stake president is the opportunity to have interviews with some of those people,” says stake president John Abraham. “They are less-active for a variety of reasons,” he says, then pauses to choose his words carefully. “But there are some real giants among them.”
He says that the high rate of acceptance among those who are invited to come back into activity is due in part to involvement by the stake presidency, who are recognized by less-active members as the highest local authorities of the Church. That involvement, President Abraham says, is “imperative. They need to know that the stake presidency cares.” Those two elements, he explains—involvement of top leaders and helping people feel comfortable and wanted in the Church—are keys to the success of the program.
It has been a blessing to see other people fully enjoying the blessings of the gospel again, says Dee Peterson, second counselor in the stake presidency. “I don’t see why we’re so slow to go out and talk about the gospel. It’s the greatest gift we can give to anybody.”
Keith Allred, first counselor in the stake presidency, is directly responsible for the activation program. For him, receiving the assignment was a little like getting what he wanted for Christmas as a boy. He has enjoyed activation work since he was a stake missionary, then a member of a bishopric, years ago. For a model, he looks to Alma’s example of dedication to this crucial work, as recorded in the fourth chapter of the Book of Alma.
“Most of the people who are inactive, I think, want to come back to the Church, but they don’t know how to start,” he says. Many times, they have sinned and “they don’t think they can repent.”
But the interview with the stake presidency, then the lessons and the warm, loving interviews with their bishops that follow, help people learn that they can change their lives, President Allred says. “As we interview them, we give them a goal or a date to receive the priesthood or go through the temple, whichever applies,” he adds. “It’s gratifying to see people’s lives change.”
President Alfred explains that in the Lovell stake, high councilors are given wide latitude in handling their assignments. They are charged to seek inspiration in what they do and keep the stake presidency fully informed.
The high councilor that President Allred has assigned to develop a reactivation program for the stake presidency’s approval is Sam Pollock. Given the freedom to follow the Spirit, Brother Pollock has structured a program with only one goal—helping people he loves. On the road most of the week in his job, he spends much of his free time in Lovell teaching the gospel to less-active members. They aren’t his assignment; they are his friends. Brother Pollock is warm, easygoing, and extremely flexible with the families he helps activate.
In the plan that Brother Pollock developed, the invitation to specific people to take part in the lessons comes after bishops have prayerfully considered the less-active members in their wards and submitted names to the stake presidency. Those who accept the invitation to participate then receive a series of twelve lessons covering basic doctrinal topics. These include the plan of salvation, the apostasy and restoration, the Book of Mormon, the priesthood, the atonement of Christ, obedience and blessings, revelation and inspiration, the second coming of Christ, prayer, the temple, preparing for a temple recommend, and service and activity in the Church. But these lessons can be expanded to as many as the less-active members need to feel confident that they understand the gospel.
When less-active members are invited to take these lessons, they are also promised that there will be no pressure on them and that they will not be put on the spot by being asked to pray or answer gospel questions before they feel ready to volunteer. That means most of the teaching is done by lecture. But teachers are also ready to respond to any and all questions, even if it means research before the next class.
During the first few lessons, the less-active members’ attitudes about the Church usually change and soften, and it isn’t long before many of them are asking questions and studying hard on their own. “These lessons will make you want to read,” says Sharon Hallman. “They’ll make you want to get your Book of Mormon out and study.” In addition to the Book of Mormon, class members also borrow books and Church videotapes from a pool that is made available to them.
Lessons are never aimed at any person’s particular problem—smoking or drinking, for example. That’s another way to avoid putting people on the spot and making them fall back on old defenses. But as they learn more about the commitments Latter-day Saints can make to Heavenly Father, and the blessings he promises in return, most decide on their own to conform their lives to gospel standards.
“I think this family had not held family prayer more than half a dozen times over the years—until we started taking the lessons,” Everett Hallman reflects. Now the Hallmans and their children have family prayer consistently.
Sometime near the lesson on obedience and blessings, bishops call those who are taking the activation lessons in for a friendly interview to let them know they are loved and valued in the ward. Bishops have a crucial role in the activation process because there are three things only they can do: help less-active members through the repentance process as necessary; determine their worthiness for priesthood advancement and temple recommends; and, when the less-active members are ready, place them in a ward calling that will not overwhelm them but help them grow.
The pressure of callings for which they are unprepared can be frightening. Charles Cockrell recalls that he and his wife, Helen, had begun to be less-active in the Church while he was in the Navy. The first Sunday after they returned home, they went to Church and someone greeted him with, “Boy, we’ve got a job for you!”
“And he was gone!” Helen says. She points out that not only do less-active members worry that they will be called on to perform somehow if they go to church, but they may feel uncomfortable simply attending because they have been out of the mainstream of the Church for so long. “I feel safe here,” she says, glancing around their comfortable home behind their convenience store and gasoline station. “In church, I don’t. And it’s hard.”
That’s why fellowshipping is so important. Rand Tippetts recalls that the bishop’s warmth and kindness made it possible to talk about things in his life that needed to be resolved. His wife Anne adds that the fellowship of friends in their activation group and people in their ward helped them hold onto their resolve to change their lives.
The changes that take place in the lives of less-active members often reach beyond their immediate families. Seeing the changes in Rand and Anne Tippetts, his parents, Ivan and Melba, accepted an invitation to attend one of the activation groups themselves. Melba had been baptized when she married Ivan but had never been active in the Church, largely because she felt she did not know enough about it. For her, the joy of the activation classes was in learning about the gospel. It’s possible to do that on your own, she says, but many people don’t.
Rather than take the activation lessons with a group, Tom and Toni Bassett took them in their home. It seemed more personal, and the thought of meeting with a group was intimidating, since both felt they knew so little about the gospel. Sam Pollock put a personal touch into the teaching that helped give a certain urgency to the lessons, Tom recalls. “When he taught about the Atonement, I knew he believed it.”
The knowledge of the gospel that they gained filled both of them with desire to change their lives and come back to the Church. People in their ward helped make it easier. Tom had always looked to former bishop Douglas Savage, Sr., and his son as models among Latter-day Saints. “They always asked me to come to church, and when I did, it was like I made their year,” he recalls, smiling. And fellowshipping is contagious. “Now I find myself doing it. It catches on,” he says.
Tom was ordained an elder not long ago. He speaks of the strength he draws from home teaching with Toni’s father, an exemplary member. In many cases, the fellowshipping of family members through the years has played a key role in bringing people into the Church. In at least one case in the Lovell activation program, it has also resulted in a convert baptism.
Allen Harvey had lived all of his life around Latter-day Saints—and had been married to one for fifteen years. There were bits of LDS doctrine “I picked up over the years that I think I believed in my mind, but I didn’t want to admit it,” he says. He had taken missionary discussions before and stopped when he felt pressured. But two events in his life prepared him to listen—the spirit he felt at the funeral for his wife Elaine’s father, and the experience they had when she received her patriarchal blessing. Because of a failure in a recording device, Elaine had to receive her blessing again. Though there were some changes in wording, as nearly as they could tell, the promises were the same.
A great spirit of fellowship often develops in the stake’s activation groups. While Allen was taking the lessons, other members of the group asked the teacher privately not to end the lessons until Allen was ready for baptism. What eventually brought him to baptism was the fellowship he felt and the concept of the eternal family; he and Elaine have four daughters. Immediately after his baptism in February of 1988, they set a goal to go to the temple one year later.
It was fellowshipping, too, that helped bring Don Bryant back to the Church. First the stake mission leader, Craig Walker, and Bruce Morrison, ward mission leader, came into their home to teach, and then they began to seek Don out in town and at church. They were friends, Don recalls. “Anything I needed, they were just right there.” Other members began to follow their lead.
“It surprised me a lot more than it surprised them when I became active,” Don says. But he had been noticing that he was moving in a different direction than his wife and daughters, who attended church meetings regularly. “There was something missing in my life. I thought I was happy before, but I didn’t know true happiness.”
He caught fire when he started reading about the gospel. Often, he would read a week ahead of the lessons Craig and Bruce brought, researching the topics they discussed in other books. Don and Ruth frequently turned to her father for answers about the gospel. Ruth’s parents, he says, have for years provided a loving, Christlike example for them to follow.
Don was made an elder just two months after the lessons began. He and Ruth were sealed in the temple in June of 1988, on their fifteenth wedding anniversary. Not only did activation help him as a father, it also enabled him to bless the lives of others. When Craig Walker was released as ward mission leader, Don Bryant was called to take his place.
“I try to realize now what my Heavenly Father’s plan is for me, and I try my best to fulfill it,” Don says. “Now I feel I’ve got a purpose.”
Reactivation efforts in the Lovell Wyoming Stake generally follow these steps:
Bishops prayerfully select and submit names of families or individuals who could be invited to become active again. Often bishops and stake leaders are surprised at the names they are impressed to submit. But they have usually found that the Spirit of the Lord has already been at work to prepare these people.
The less-active members are invited to an interview with the stake president or one of his counselors. The member of the stake presidency expresses love for them and invites them to take the activation lessons. They are promised that there will be no pressure to pray, talk in meetings, or accept a calling.
They receive twelve basic activation lessons. These can be increased in number, according to the need.
Near the sixth lesson, members are interviewed by their bishops. In these interviews, the bishops express their love and friendship, and let the members know they are easily accessible. There may be a need for the bishops to help them work through the repentance process. Interviews continue periodically.
Fellowship is extended naturally and lovingly. Much fellowshipping occurs naturally as active members discover the strengths and delightful qualities these newfound friends possess.
Newly active members are invited to serve the Lord. When newly active members feel prepared, care is taken to give them a calling suited to their abilities and needs. It is important for them to learn that they are capable of succeeding within the Church organization.
Priesthood leaders continue to work with them as they move toward goals of being advanced in the priesthood or receiving temple blessings.