“Keeping Converts,” Ensign, Oct. 1998, 54
When leaders from the Charleston South Carolina Stake are asked how they have been so successful in keeping new members active, it’s not uncommon to hear the reply, “We’re not really doing anything out of the ordinary.” And for the most part it’s true; Latter-day Saints in this verdant area of the southern United States are simply following the counsel laid out by the leaders of the Church. Yet by consistently monitoring the progress of each new convert, members here have seen over 80 percent of those baptized in 1997 remain strong in the gospel.
“I credit a lot of our success in retention to the follow-up our ward leaders have been doing with the convert baptism checklist,” says stake president Joseph D. Stubbs. “Bishops have a copy of the checklist for every person who is baptized so they’ll know people instead of knowing numbers.”
The convert baptism checklist is one key the Charleston South Carolina Stake has used to integrate new members into their ward families. Liz Sharp, a marriage and family counselor in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, was introduced to the Church when she was asked to conduct a series of firesides on building successful marriages and raising children. “I started doing more with the Church through my friend Dee Dee over at the Charleston ward,” says Liz. “I sang in the choir. I thought it was awesome they’d let a nonmember sing with them.”
Liz was regularly attending the ward in Charleston with her friend and gradually developing a testimony, but her husband, Joe, was not interested in learning about the Church. On 31 December 1995 she was baptized and became a member of the neighboring Mount Pleasant Ward. “I was so impressed,” she says. “Half of the Mount Pleasant Ward showed up for my baptism, people I had never met before.”
As items on her convert baptism checklist were accomplished, Liz progressed: she was attending the Gospel Principles class, she accepted a calling in the ward, and she was receiving the Discussions for New Members.
At first Joe kept his distance during these discussions, but gradually he became involved. After going through a year’s worth of missionaries, he met with the mission president. Joe explained that he was sure the Church was true and that he’d be baptized one day, but he needed spiritual confirmation to go along with his intellectual understanding of the gospel.
Joe’s confirmation came as he sat talking with the stake patriarch before Liz arrived to receive her patriarchal blessing. Ten days later, on 23 February 1997, he was baptized and his convert baptism checklist joined Liz’s in Bishop Hale’s notebook. “It’s all laid out. The bishop has a little checkoff sheet in there to keep track of how everybody is doing,” Joe says, pointing toward the bishop’s office.”And it’s his goal to get you into the temple step by step.” Joe and Liz succeeded in meeting all their goals and went through the Atlanta Georgia Temple on 10 April 1998.
The kind of conscientious monitoring needed to get new members like Joe and Liz to the temple begins when Nathan Hale, bishop of the Mount Pleasant Ward, opens his notebook and pulls out an agenda for ward council meeting. “The very first thing we do is go through the convert baptism checklist,” he explains. “We go through every single new member and we talk about them.” Auxiliary presidents have copies of checklists for particular converts they will be involved with; the focus is to fill each individual’s needs. The new member’s progress is reviewed and updated until the bottom item on the checklist is accomplished when they attend the temple. But Bishop Hale stresses that leaders shouldn’t fall into a pattern of just checking off items on a list: “It’s the Spirit that converts people, but more importantly, it’s the Spirit that gives them the compelling motivation they need to go forward continually and succeed.”
A second key to the Charleston South Carolina Stake’s success in convert retention has been the Discussions for New Members (item no. 31167, available at distribution centers, $2.45 U.S.). These lessons have helped converts make the transition from being taught by full-time missionaries to receiving visits from home and visiting teachers. Frank Carter, the stake mission president, explains how the process works: “We’ve asked that the full-time missionaries give the first discussion for new members, but they should have at least the home teachers or the stake missionaries present. The second discussion should be shared between the full-time missionaries and the stake missionaries with the home teachers present for that too. Then the last four discussions are shared between the home teachers and the stake missionaries.”
In the Charleston First Ward, 19-year-old Jason La Monica joined the Church in December 1997 and is now a stake missionary. Through the series of discussions, Jason came to know Greg Earls, one of his home teachers, and other members of the ward. He was impressed by their sincere desire to live Christlike lives all during the week and not just on Sunday. “It’s their genuine love and desire to offer service that’s helped me along,” he says.
In the Summerville Ward, Vic and Carolyn Kirmes were sealed in the temple several years ago, due in large part to a faithful home teacher and the friendship of ward members. Carolyn was an elementary school teacher who joined the Church after eight-year-old Sacha Kirby invited her to her baptism. She remembers that everything the elders taught her sounded familiar and made perfect sense.
After Carolyn’s baptism, Vic attended sacrament meeting with her almost every Sunday but let it be known that he was not interested in hearing more about the Church. Carolyn remembers being afraid that one of her home teachers, Frank Carter, might push Vic away: “I had told Frank not to teach. I said, ‘Come, be our home teacher, but don’t preach when you’re here.’ He said, ‘All right, but I promise you he’ll be baptized.’”
Vic had also become good friends with Ralph Kirby, Sacha’s father. Over time, the genuine concern shown him by Frank, Ralph, and other ward members began to make an impact. And when Frank gradually started teaching him about the gospel, Vic agreed to have the missionaries come and teach the discussions. It wasn’t long before Vic joined the Church.
Pete Schlegel, ward mission leader in the Charleston First Ward, emphasizes a third key in helping new members progress in the gospel: giving converts the opportunity to serve. “We get them going on home and visiting teaching right away,” he says. “I always give the bishop a gentle reminder in our priesthood executive committee meeting: We don’t have a calling for this young lady or young gentleman yet; we need to start thinking about that, get some inspiration, and get them going.”
In the Moncks Corner Ward, Dave and Diane Judy were introduced to the Church through associating with members while golfing. Although each came from a religious background, they felt something lacking in their lives. Listening to the missionaries, they started getting some answers they had been seeking for a long time. Shortly after being baptized in February of 1997, the Judys received callings. Diane teaches in the Primary and Dave serves as first counselor in the Sunday School presidency. “We had no problem in being accepted,” Diane remembers. “Everyone in the ward was friendly and close to us right from the start. We got to meet people because we were involved.”
Carolyn Kirmes from the Summerville Ward also received strength from her calling. Shortly after her baptism, and as she waited for her husband to show interest in the Church, she was called to teach in the Relief Society: “I got a calling right away and so I felt needed and valuable. That made a big difference with me.”
Why are the basics working for the Charleston South Carolina Stake? Stake mission president Frank Carter says that since stake leaders started keeping track of individual converts, ward leaders and ward members have been more diligent in welcoming and nurturing them. The ward members truly care about and feel accountable for the new converts. So it wasn’t surprising to hear Sister Barbara Crubaugh of the Summerville Ward speak in sacrament meeting on the importance of following through on working with new members. She quoted from the Book of Mormon:
“And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer” (Moro. 6:4).
“We aren’t doing anything differently than what the handbook tells us and the directions we’ve received from the Brethren,” says President Frank Carter. “And with and through all that, it’s work, caring, and love that make the difference.”
Stake president Joseph D. Stubbs explains the simple success formula that has helped new members in the Charleston stake remain committed after baptism. “They’ve had good priesthood leaders to nurture them along, they’ve had good members to help when it was needed, and they’ve been given opportunities to serve.”