Saturday, November 8, 2008

How to Help our New Members Become Strong, Committed Latter-day Saints

Some overall thoughts about new members…and how they struggle or are strengthened—followed by some comments in read throughout the article:

Before I read your article, I made a list of what I thought was important and what went wrong—I thought about it in the context of friends, nourishment with the word, and responsibilities.

Friends: They need to have someone who is near them—both in proximity and in relationship. So many of the strongest converts I’ve seen are those who have joined b/c of a roommate, neighbor, or proximate example. They need to feel very comfortable being with them so the member can identify things that they should learn by having observed the new member. The new member needs to feel like they can ask any question of the member…they need to feel like they have an awareness of the member having weaknesses too (so they’re not intimidated). This friend should be someone who nearly doubles the positive experience Church gives the new member… there are people, for me, who delight and lift me just being in the same meetings I’m in-b/c they take a special interest in me. That doesn’t happen very often for new members who come into the Church alone.

Nourishment w/the word: This is just not happening. There is no accountability for their progress in the Scriptures, in their prayers, in their fasting, their Sabbath observance, their attendance at all Church meetings, their participation in Church activities, their living the commandments and laws of the Church, etc. New members were accountable to the missionaries for the commitments they received during investigation—there is no clear setting of accountability to anyone afterward… a warm welcome from a bishop should include some feeling of “you are accountable to me” …or moreover, “you are accountable to the Lord, and He would have me serve as His representative to help, tutor, love, and lift.” I think about all the ways I am nourished with the word…through my personal scripture study (which took many years to provide a strong nourishment, and if I’m not careful, which I still struggle to do well both regarding intensity and frequency/length of study.) I am nourished by General Conference (I don’t think most new members grasp the beauty of rolling-6-month revelations through living oracles!), Institute/Family Home Evening, Sunday School, Home Teachers, etc. Are they around families or individuals who talk about the Gospel when they’re not expected to…applying it to all of life’s perilous challenges.

Responsibility: They need someone who can mentor them in a significant, and specific responsibility. We don’t provide this. We don’t give them the frequency of contact with leaders or mentors to really engage them in the ward in a way that makes them feel needed, and helps them see the divine working of the Lord in His Church. We need to assign responsibility lightning fast, and then check in to be sure responsibilities are understood—rarely are they overwhelmed, they’re much more underwhelmed—so let’s overshoot, if needed, then dial it back if there is too much. New members have enough excitement to move it forward in ways we can’t always estimate. I think about areas where the Church has had to grow on the backs of new members—I think it must grow in large measure b/c new members are enthused about bearing the kingdom. (I’d like to see more data on this)

A few other thoughts that you didn’t address, but that I think work in the lives of new members:

*Negative experiences with the Church, its doctrine, its people: I think there is a time when new members face negative experiences…they learn about anti- literature, they face poor treatment by a Church member, they experience abuse of power or insensitive treatment from a Church leader, etc. This negative experience may extend to personal trials—unanswered prayers, recurring temptations and bad habits, and transgression—some minor, some more serious. I don’t think we handle these negative experiences very well… The new member will feel very hesitant to talk to anyone about it—so we need to do better at providing the right environment to begin with…but then, we need to be willing to address their negative experiences with less judgment, and much more love. JaNeece’s friend, who left the Church—who I interviewed for the less-active-new-member aspect, ran into a lot of anti-Mormon stuff, and no one knew how to handle it. They brushed it under the rug, they didn’t validate the concern, they acted very unaware and unfeeling toward her. As she started to not attend Church anymore, no one reached out, because they feared her…what she might say, what she might know, what she might ask, what she might be doing. She found out people were surmising she was having immoral relationships with a boyfriend, etc. etc. A recent convert in LP1 who I home taught—he made bad choices, stopped paying tithing, stopped attending Church, and felt very distanced. I tried to handle it as best I could—but found I was very frustrated at his lack of response…we need to be better..we need to know the Lord is still working in their lives, and we need to be committed to them for the long haul. Almost every single person I listed as a reactivated member or new member I worked with in the last 7 years—went through a significant trying period where they pulled back…only by having people who loved them for the long haul, accepted them, etc. were they brought back…some didn’t come back. I don’t think we deal with this issue in the Church.

*Escalating and Adapting: I don’t think we do very well when things start to fall apart (as mentioned above), or when timelines are missed. In my new job, we call our customers members. And we watch their “activity level” very closely—we have a service score that is reviewed every week…showing how active the members are…how much are they using our research, how often are they coming to our meetings, asking for our content to be sent/presented, downloading from our website. We’ve come up with metrics that show where they should be at any point of the annual cycle to predict renewal. When the metrics are not met, WE INTERVENE, and we have contingency plans. We should be doing this absolutely for new members. I say a lot more about this below—the lack of accountability,..but I think it’s a huge problem. We have a “member retention expert” in my organization—who reaches out to members that slip… Why don’t we have someone just focused on retention..and maybe they sit in the ward, or maybe in the stake? What about at the temple? Can the temple president play more of a role to pull the new members in, rather than hope the pathetic 10-30% get pushed to him? I imagine a stake president reaching out and saying, “I’m your bishop’s leader, and he has expressed concern and love for you—I thought I’d take some of my time for you, showing you how important you are for the Church, and just find out what’s up.” Or a high-council member focused on retention? And pulling the data and actions up the line… When there’s a problem with new member lessons being taught, let’s find out what’s going on and adapt. Instead, we wait around for 6 months to pass when it’s obvious we’ve a problem and it’s too late to reach them. (As said below, I think our leaders accept answers to queries about new members that they should not accept)

MB: Comments about specific ideas in the paper are below in red.

Whenever one group works on a piece of a project and hands it off to another to continue the work, defining how the two groups must work together is crucial. If the first group does not do its work well, then the second needs to fix what the first should have done before they can begin their job. Even when both groups feel jointly responsible for producing a successful result, frustration reigns if no one has clearly defined how the work of the two groups must fit together,. The first group often works hard on things that that don’t matter. The second blames the first for the problems and gets tired from re-working what they think the first should have done.

We see interface problems like this in education, where first grade teachers hand kids off to the second grade who can’t yet read. Toyota sees (and has solved) this problem in the myriad steps involved in designing and manufacturing cars. There are hand-off problems in athletics, where one runner gives the baton to the next; and in medicine, when surgeons deliver patients to critical care nurses. And we encounter this challenge when missionaries hand off newly baptized members to the leaders of our wards.

A key reason why many of our new members fall away from the church after baptism is that we have inadequately and inaccurately defined the interface between investigation and membership. As a result, we are working very hard to fix problems that would not arise if we were to design the work of members and missionaries to interface properly at the point of baptism. The work that missionaries and members must do so that we consistently retain all of the people who are baptized has been described only in general terms. We do not accurately measure whether we are succeeding, and we do not hold missionaries or members accountable for doing this work well. It is no wonder that only a fraction of new members are still fully active five years after baptism. “Working around” the fundamental problem caused by this poorly defined interface is not only frustrating and ineffective. It allows the problem to persist.

The good news is that if we define more clearly and accurately what must be done before and after baptism, we can be much more successful without requiring more work by members and missionaries, and without reducing the numbers of people who are baptized.

I think this can be difficult given the recent shift in full-time missionary training/resources we have seen with Preach My Gospel. It seems to be a very clean break from scripted, “you must teach this, with these words, etc.” to “teach by the Spirit, using your own developed outlines, etc.” That being the case, I think any specific instruction about “teach this doctrine this way, and ask these questions, and ensure this learning” is going to be difficult. I completely agree with the examples you give about teaching them to pray—by example, practice, and member-missionary-investigator iterations. I also like giving them homework with specific questioning and answering about reading.

The Interface Between Investigation and Membership

Although President Hinckley has defined the elements of the interface between investigation and membership – “A friend, a responsibility, and nourishing with the good word of God” – we have not translated this specification into the required changes in the way we work with investigators and new members.[i] There are two sides to each of these elements. It is not enough to say that the members need to nourish new converts. Converts must understand how to be nourished. It’s not enough to say that members must give responsibility to converts. If this is to work, converts must be ready to accept responsibility. If investigators are prepared to receive these things and members are prepared to give them, many more of our new members will grow to become strong, committed, worthy latter-day saints.

The metaphor of hand-offs describes how we often have worked at the baptismal interface. However, members and missionaries are jointly responsible for improving what we do on the investigation and membership sides of the baptismal interface in order to keep new members active. We’re all responsible for getting it right: “The work of proclaiming the gospel will move forward more powerfully when full-time missionaries and members coordinate their efforts and work in unity together.”[ii] “It isn’t enough for people simply to come into the church. They must come to stay.”[iii]

Nourishment in the Good Word of God

If new members are to be nourished in the good word of God, it means that before baptism we need to teach them how to be nourished. And upon baptism, we must be prepared to continue providing the needed nourishment without interruption. Conversion is an ongoing process in which missionaries and members are partners.

Teaching Investigators How to Be Nourished

I will illustrate how we must do a better job teaching investigators how to be nourished by describing how John, our friend, accepted the gospel. John had been raised in a Christian home. At the end of the first lesson the missionaries gave him a Book of Mormon and invited him to read and pray about it. At the beginning of the second and third lessons they asked if he had read any of it, and if he had been praying. When John said “Yes,” the missionaries seemed pleased and quickly got down to the business of teaching him the lesson. At the end of each lesson they again asked if he would continue reading and praying. John said he would.

At the beginning of the fourth lesson, the light of the gospel that we normally see in the face of those who are discovering the truth just wasn’t radiating from John’s. In fact, he looked troubled. So when he told the missionaries again that he had been studying and praying, I interrupted and asked, “John how are you praying, and what are you saying in your prayers?”

John looked relieved that I’d asked, and answered, “I guess I really don’t know how to pray.” We had assumed that because he was raised in a Christian home and had heard us offer prayers at the start and end of the lessons, that he knew how to pray in private. But he did not.

I then offered, “Let’s kneel down, and I’ll demonstrate how I would pray if I were in your shoes. Then I’ll ask Christine to pray, and then Elder Hoffman. Listen to what we say and how we say it. Each of our prayers will be different, but listen for patterns in what we say. Then you can ask us why we said what we said, and we’ll do our best to explain. We did this.

We then discussed the concerns and challenges in John’s life that had prompted him to accept our invitations to come to these discussions. We suggested how John could ask for God’s help for these concerns in prayer. Then I asked John to pray aloud, and we gave suggestions on how he could make his prayers even more effective. We also explained that during and after his prayers he could receive responses from God. We described what these felt like, and said that when he prayed privately it was very important not just to speak, but to listen for words in his mind and feelings in his heart.

I then asked John how much of the Book of Mormon he had read. He confessed that he had only read the introduction. “I’ve been busy and it’s been hard to get into it,” he explained.

“You don’t read this like you read novels when you were in school,” I offered. “To show you how to do it, I’m going to give you a simple homework assignment. Read Moroni, chapter 8. Then write a one or two-paragraph answer to each of these two questions.” I wrote them down: 1) Why does it make God angry when people baptize infants? And 2), What is the process by which your sins are forgiven?

I then said, “Before you sit down to read this chapter, kneel and pray aloud, asking God to help you answer these questions. Then read the chapter and write a draft of your answers.

“Then pray again,” I continued. “Explain to God what you’ve written, and ask, ‘I’m going to read this chapter one more time. Please help me understand this even more clearly.” Then revise what you’ve written into the final draft that you’ll turn in to me when we meet next.

Finally, we read Moroni 10:3-5. I explained two things about this scripture that are crucial elements of how to pray. “First, notice that we need to express gratitude to God for all that he has done for us. This will remind you how much God loves you. The reason why He wants you thoughtfully to list the things He has done for you and to thank Him for them is that doing this will help you feel his love. Second, praying with real intent means that you need to tell God what you intend to do with the knowledge you are asking him to give you. It’s not enough just to ask for knowledge.[iv] So finish this exercise by praying one more time. As you thank God for what He has done, thank Him for helping you to understand the things in this chapter. Then ask him whether the things that you have summarized in your own words, are true; and tell God what you intend to do if He tells you it is true. Then listen to how you feel in your heart.”

I finished by saying, “You’ll be tempted to short-cut this process by busily reading the chapter from beginning to end as fast as you can – the same way you read assignments in school. But remember that this is different. Back then, you just wanted to finish the book. Here, your objective isn’t necessarily to finish the book. It’s to find out if it is true.”

John did this. At the next lesson, John’s face had changed. He had only read one chapter, but because we had taught him how to pray and how to read the scriptures, he received more benefit from one chapter than he would have gotten had he read the whole book in the way he had learned to read novels. What subsequently happened in that lesson is exactly what God promised in D&C 50:17-22. The missionaries came prepared to teach through the power of the spirit, and John had come prepared to learn through the power of the spirit. We were edified.

It is important that we give investigators an adequate understanding of the doctrines of the church before baptism. But in my experience, missionaries take at least 95% of the time in discussions teaching the doctrine. Because learning the doctrine is a life-long process, we must do a much better job teaching investigators how to study and pray in a way that brings spiritual nourishment into their lives.[v] And then, after baptism, we need to continue nourishing them.

Being Prepared to Nourish New Members

We have been asked to provide continued nourishment to new members in two ways: teaching the five missionary lessons; and taking them to the temple to be baptized for ancestors. We aren’t doing it. In the system prior to Preach My Gospel, only 36% of those who were baptized in the Northeast were taught all six new member lessons.[vi] While the stakes in our temple district together baptize about 70 people each month, we see only a few new members each month in the temple baptistry.

Let me propose a mechanism to help us provide this nourishment more consistently. When we call ward missionaries, we should ask them to reserve the same times every week – Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon, for example – when they will commit to serve as missionaries. Committing to serve on this regular rhythm will bring structure to their work. It will help the full-time missionaries know when to schedule appointments. More importantly, ward missionaries can then be called to continue serving as home teachers for new members for the first 3-4 months of their membership, and visit them on this weekly rhythm.[vii] I use the word continue because they will already have been teaching the lessons with the missionaries before baptism.

Yes yes yes…I think this is a key—keeping the frequency and amplitude of their interface with a Gospel teacher at the level it is with the full-time missionaries.

Like it or not, home and visiting teaching occurs on a monthly rhythm if it occurs at all. It is a shock to new members to go from the daily nurturing of missionaries to monthly visits of home and visiting teachers. Assigning ward missionaries to be home teachers to new members creates a home teaching district in which these special home teachers are called to serve on a weekly rhythm – in fact, because they assist missionaries in teaching the lessons, they actually begin home teaching a couple of weeks before baptism. A lot of important nourishment can be delivered in these weekly visits for 3-4 months. As noted next, getting the new member to the temple to be baptized for ancestors should be the special home teacher’s top priority. When this is underway, then the weekly visits can be filled with teaching new member lessons, teaching the new members how to fulfill their priesthood responsibilities and ward callings, and so on. If the new member is struggling to overcome addictions, rhythmic weekly visits can be invaluable. Three to four months after baptism, we can turn most new members over to the monthly rhythm by which most home and visiting teachers do their work.

In small units where no ward missionaries are serving, bishops should assign the member who helped the missionaries teach the before-baptism lessons, to set this regular time aside every week to continue providing this nourishment after baptism without interruption, as the special home or visiting teacher.

Nourishment in the Temple

On the first home/visiting teaching visit after baptism, this special home/visiting teacher should start helping the new member prepare to visit the temple within eight weeks to be baptized for his or her ancestors. Elder Packer mandated this in his December 2004 letter.

I’ve heard from many sources that about 80% of new members who do baptisms in a temple within 3 months of their own baptism stay active. I’ve been skeptical of this assertion, thinking that it might be a statement of correlation and not causality – in other words, I thought that converts who remain worthy and willing to go to the temple are those who would have stayed active anyway.

But after interviewing many new members who have done this and others who haven’t, I’ve decided that visiting the temple soon after baptism exerts a strong causal influence on new members remaining active – for three reasons. The first is nourishment. Those who have gone to the temple report that after the spiritual high of baptism, they just needed another deeply spiritual experience. The second is responsibility: Doing this work for ancestors helps them feel needed – because they are needed. The third is friends. They go to the temple with friends, to be sure. But perhaps even more importantly, those relatives who have accepted the gospel in the spirit world and have been waiting and praying for one of their descendants to accept the gospel on the earth, will surround and support this new member in ways that may be unseen, but profound. I’ve heard many stories that lead me to this conclusion.

Rather than it being the general responsibility of everyone to get new members to the temple, each ward’s mission plan should give specific responsibility to the special home/visiting teacher and the High Priests Group Leader / ward family history specialist to begin working on this immediately after baptism.

I struggle to understand this one in practice. I made a list of all the people I knew over the past 6 years who are new members—who I worked with as a ward mission leader, ward missionary, or home teacher. Granted, I wasn’t always as intense about getting them to the temple as I should have been—and I think this is a major need we have, to be sure there is a system that enforces follow up and intensity around getting them to the temple. But when I was the point-person assigned…the home teacher, I ran into frequent concerns about the temple. New members were just not excited about finding family names to take to the temple, and the greater Church membership is pretty pathetic at demonstrating excitement in that way—me included! Further, I ran into a general feeling of the member thinking they had “arrived” at baptism…it was made the “end all” of their journey with the missionaries—and the missionaries seemed to be always shooting toward baptism as the destination. Therefore, there was little motivation to do anything significant to get to the temple. My most recent experience as a home teacher over a recent convert in Longfellow Park 1à he felt that he just wasn’t ready. Somehow, the temple had been described in a way that made him feel it was unattainable, or too serious, or too intimidating? He kept asking for time, and eventually, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my continual discussion of the temple (every time we met), felt like a high-pressure situation. I’d like to understand what the root causes are when we have people working to push temple attendance.

Further—about temple attendance…there is a major breakdown from those who see the benefits of it to those who ensure it happens. We KNOW it’s importance, but we are never held accountable for it. We ask how a new convert is doing in PEC, but we don’t stop and say, “this council/committee should be turning heaven and earth to get these individuals to the temple—above all else.” Instead, we hear the WML say, “well, we’ve taught one new member lesson, but the guy is hard to get in touch with, and he wants to pay his tithing more regularly before the temple, and we don’t have a trip scheduled for the ward…” and all these reasons that are inappropriately accepted by ward leadership…. We should do something more dramatic…like, stop PEC and make a call to the new member right then—to setup an interview, or we should give more signals about how important this is.

To connect solidly at this element of the interface between investigation and membership, our new members must have been taught how to be nourished by the spirit, and our wards must be ready with a systematic mechanism to provide the needed nourishment to each person without interruption. (yes!), but everyone at every leadership position needs to know it is a priority.


We must also do a better job of connecting on both sides of the responsibility part of the interface – ensuring that when new members are baptized they are prepared to accept responsibility; and by our being ready to give them the right responsibility at the time of baptism.

Prepared to Accept Responsibility

The scriptures define preparedness to accept responsibility as an element of the investigation-membership interface. Those approaching baptism must be “…willing to bear one another's burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort ….” (Mosiah 18:8 - 9). They must be determined to serve Christ to the end (Moroni 6:3; D&C 20:37) How can we know before baptism that an investigator is indeed willing to accept responsibility to help others? There are at least two litmus tests.

Making and Keeping Commitments

The first test of investigators’ willingness to accept responsibility is whether they have kept the commitments they have been asked to keep as they have studied with the missionaries. Making and keeping commitments is a repeated exercise of faith, repentance, and experiencing a forgiveness of sins. Missionaries’ objective in preparing and teaching lessons should not simply be to help investigators understand doctrine. Rather, they should teach towards commitmentsinstructing in such a way that the investigators understand the nature of the commitment they will be asked to make and how to do it; inviting them to make the commitment; and inspiring them to do it.

Preach My Gospel instructs missionaries to “Help people qualify for baptism and confirmation by teaching them true doctrine and inviting them to repent and change their lives, through making and keeping commitments that build their faith in Jesus Christ.”[viii] In my experience to date, however, it seems that the culture of our missions has historically so strongly emphasized helping investigators understand the doctrine that a tiny fraction of the time in most lessons is spent instructing, inviting and inspiring investigators to make and keep commitments.

I described above how our friend John hadn’t been taught how to keep the commitment of scripture study and prayer. Here’s another example. Of the many times that missionaries have taught people in our home and invited them to attend church, I never remember them ever taking the time to teach our friends how to keep this commitment in a way that would change their hearts. Missionaries should not just invite investigators to attend church. They should teach their investigators what it means to keep the Sabbath Day holy; help them define unholy things they habitually have done on the Sabbath that they should stop doing; give them ideas and assignments of holy things they can do to fill the Sabbath; teach them how to dress and how to prepare for and benefit from meetings; and so on.

We need to teach our missionaries that they should generally budget 15 minutes in each lesson to teach investigators what these commitments are; how to make, keep and benefit from them; inspiring investigators through testimony to accept them; and following through to ensure that investigators are benefiting from keeping these commitments. This is how the new habits that characterize the life of a worthy latter-day saint are established. I don’t know what to think here—I don’t know when my commitment keeping and covenant prioritizing really began—it was after years and years of being a youth in the Church…and somehow gaining the fire of the Spirit in my bones…how can we do that? I’m not sure full-time missionaries can really be the ones who do this. Although, Elder Holland did a broadcast to full-time missionaries in the summer of 1997 that was incredible—in which he told missionaries they needed to be more powerful in extending commitments…and that when investigators didn’t keep commitments, the very first thing they should do was BE DEVASTATED…teaching investigators that when they give their word to something the Lord expects, they must not treat it lightly.

Getting themselves to church (absolutely important—we hold their hands so much we don’t teach them to sacrifice and work hard to achieve their spiritual objectives)

The second test of investigators’ readiness to accept responsibility is their willingness to get themselves to church. I visited a ward recently where 62 people had been baptized in the prior 14 months. Only nine of those new members were at church on the day that I visited. Most of these new members were dependent upon members for rides to church. I suspect that when the missionaries first invited them to come to church, the investigators said, “I don’t have a car.” The missionaries responded, “That’s okay. We’ll have a member pick you up.” Many of these people had been baptized without ever having taken responsibility to get themselves to church. It is hard to imagine that investigators are prepared to accept responsibility to serve and strengthen others if they’re not willing to accept a simple responsibility such as this. The missionaries would help their investigators tremendously if they responded by asking, “Who do you know who has a car who could come to church with you?” If there credibly is no non-member friend or relative who can drive them to church, then bus, bicycle, and walking should be the next alternatives to explore (it was not that many years ago that walking five miles was not considered onerous).

“As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” If we and the missionaries can inspire even the weakest and most tentative investigators to make and keep simple commitments first, and then more challenging ones, it will set a tone that carries forward. They will be better prepared to accept responsibility as members. Many missionaries assume that if we make it as easy as possible to meet the requirements, more people will be baptized. But man’s ways are not God’s ways. Because the Savior promised that those who lose their lives for the sake of His gospel will find their lives and that His burden is light if we will only take His yoke upon us, we can be confident that in preparing investigators to accept responsibility, we will not deter honest people from baptism.[ix] It requires faith; but doing what appears to be hard actually will make it easier to baptize and retain more people. Members should be willing to give rides; but this should be our last resort, not the first.

My mission president always told us that Church attendance was the greatest tool and filter in missionary work—and we never used it the way we could…which was as a measuring tool of the investigators’ commitment to long-term life as a Latter-day Saint. We can give them ideas about how to get to Church, we can try to monitor their experience at Church and improve it, we can be sure they get nourished when they come, but we have to let them show their faith by their works… My mission president was always very strong in enforcing the church-attendance metric before baptism…if they didn’t come, or if they came but did it “weakly”, they were not considered ready for the major covenants –and blessings—of being in the Lord’s kingdom.

Prepared to Give Responsibility

Despite President Hinckley’s persistent call that we give new members responsibility, on average only 34% of new members ever receive a calling in the church.[x] Why? It’s the confluence of two factors.

The first factor is the process of falling away. Many converts come to church after baptism and see most members wearing nice clothes and sitting in families. They listen to members speak and teach with confidence and competence. This triggers a feeling in many of them that “I’m not like these people.” About 60% of new converts, as a result, begin attending only sporadically within four weeks after baptism.[xi]

The second factor is that the process of issuing a calling typically takes four weeks. It’s the case for me right now in my new ward in DC…cannot believe I am not being utilized more—though I’m asking for home teaching assignments and willing to do anything ad hoc in the meantime, we are SO SLOW. Most requests for people to be called come to the bishop from auxiliary and priesthood leaders. Often those who are requested are not available. Through a process of negotiation, desperation and inspiration, agreement is reached, the leaders pray for confirmation, and the call is issued. It takes four weeks. By the time bishops have decided upon a calling, therefore, they then find that most new members aren’t attending dependably enough that they can extend the calling and count on them to do it.

New members – especially those whose previous lifestyle doesn’t fit easily into the culture of our wards – need to know that they are needed in God’s Kingdom. And the data above suggests that they need to feel needed right at the time of baptism. The best way to do this is for bishops to give ward mission leaders responsibility to tailor an ideal calling for each new convert, and to recommend this calling to the bishop a week before baptism. If the bishop is inspired to accept the recommendation, then he can issue the call immediately after baptism. Converts must be ready to accept responsibility, and we must be ready to give it when they need it most.

An ideal calling for new members has each part of President Hinckley’s interface: I LOVE THIS FRAMEWORK—absolutely!

1. Friend: Always serve with another member. Friendships are best built by working together, not by sitting together. THIS IS SO TRUE—WE DON’T do enough to support this powerful converting/retaining tool of working together.

2. Responsibility: The right responsibility has three characteristics:

o Special: It helps the new member feel important and needed in the ward

o Sunday: It requires attendance at church every Sunday

o Straightforward: The assignment must not be unstructured or open-ended.

3. Nourishment: Service in the calling helps the new member learn the gospel and feel the spirit while serving.

Very few standard callings have all of these characteristics. That is why ward mission leaders need to customize them. A calling as primary teacher, for example, satisfies some of the characteristics: It makes them feel important, requires Sunday attendance, and helps them learn the gospel. But is not straightforward. It can seem daunting and complicated to a new member; and it entails serving alone. A calling as assistant primary teacher, however, satisfies all characteristics. Another example: A calling as chorister is straightforward, requires Sunday attendance and helps the convert feel important. But if the new member were also asked to telephone a ward member each week and ask what his or her favorite hymn is so that the ward can sing it on the next Sunday, the calling would also build friendships.

Most bishoprics keep a list of standard callings in the ward, and know which of those positions are not filled. It seems easy to give one of these unfilled callings to a new convert. But often these callings aren’t filled for a reason: they aren’t very important. Most of these are not good assignments for new members. If they will think creatively and prayerfully, ward mission leaders can design callings that have all or most of the characteristics of an ideal calling. They can then recommend to their bishops a responsibility for each new member that is tailored to each person’s capabilities. The normal process for issuing callings doesn’t work for new members.

There are isolated incidents where new members have been driven to inactivity because their wards asked too much of them too quickly. But we must be very careful not to generalize from these exceptions. In the first place, 66% of new members never even receive a calling. And second, callings that conform to the criteria listed above will energize, not discourage, new members.

Of the three elements of the interface between investigation and membership, responsibility is perhaps the piece that we do most poorly. Many new members are poorly prepared to accept responsibility, and we are not ready to give responsibility when it is most needed. Making the changes noted in this section will not require more work: we just need to change the way we work.

I love this section on responsibility! It is something that I think is immediately actionable—and can show immediate results.


The role of friendship at the interface between investigation and membership generally is framed as the need to substitute new friends for the old friends of new members – because the social system in which most new members previously lived involves too many temptations and attractions back into a lifestyle of sin. I’d like to address the friendship challenge at the baptismal interface in two parts: friends at home, and friends at church.

Friends at Home

We can assign members to act in a friendly manner towards new converts, but it is hard to assign people to be friends away from church. Whereas most new members can fall away within a few weeks of baptism, friendships are built over a much longer timeframe – and they are generally built by sacrificing for the friendship, not just by receiving friendly behavior.

There are at least two things we can do to help new members have supportive friends at home. The first, as mentioned above, is to ask ward missionaries to home teach new members during regular blocks of time on a weekly rhythm. Some ward missionaries wisely have held their weekly home teaching visit in the home of a different member every week to enlarge the network of friendly people.

The second thing we should do is for full-time and ward missionaries to focus much more intently on baptizing groups of family members and friends. Instead of baptizing investigators individually and then facing the challenge of exchanging new friends for prior ones, we should do all we can to help investigators bring friends into the church with them. The table below shows what a profound difference friends at home can make. It summarizes data on new members that I collected from 3 wards – Lamoille Valley (Montpelier VT Stake), Jamestown (Jamestown NY Stake), and Gardner (Springfield MA Stake). In these wards in the past 3 years 181 people have been baptized. The left-most column characterizes the living environment in which these people were living when they were baptized, on a 1-5 scale where 1 = no support and 5 = strong support for living the gospel.[xii] Those judged to have enjoyed strong support were baptized with other friends or family members, or were living in a home at the time of baptism where family or roommates already were supportive members of the church. Those whose living environment was judged to be providing little or no support were baptized alone, in a living environment where there were no other active LDS members.

Note that of those who were baptized into supportive environments, 49% are today temple-worthy, and another 34% attend church at least three times per month (adds to 83%). In contrast, of those who were baptized singly into environments where there was little or no support, only 9% are temple-worthy. Most are totally inactive. Clearly, it makes a big difference when new converts bring friends and family with them into the church. In each of these wards, the converts who became strong and those who fell away were exposed to similar efforts by members to be friendly. What made the difference was whether there were supportive LDS friends and family at home.

This data reinforces the importance of asking investigators who don’t have a car, “Who do you know who has a car who could bring you to church?” We have long suggested to missionaries that they should solicit referrals from investigators, but we have recommended this as a means of finding new investigators. Perhaps more importantly, we must do better at this because it heavily influences the probability of the investigator remaining active. Indeed, the scriptures state that a demonstrated willingness to stand as a witness of God (to friends and family, for example) is an important standard of qualification at the baptismal interface (D&C 20:37; Mosiah 18:9-10).

Is baptizing groups of people a pipedream, or is it within our reach? President Hinckley recounted a ward in Brazil that suffered from typical problems of new converts falling away quickly. New members sapped rather than added to the strength of the ward. The bishop took ownership of the problem, and working through the missionaries and ward council, found ways to begin baptizing people as members of family groups, rather than individually. He reported that 85% of those baptized in family groups remained active – and that striving to baptize people in family groups did not reduce the total number being baptized.[i] These numbers are stunningly similar to those in the sample above. President Hinckley urged us to adopt this practice as a standard – where the bishop and ward council take ownership of the problem – but we have not.

We certainly should not keep people who have no prospect of support at home from being baptized. But if the data above are generalizable – that those who have supportive friends and family at home have a 5x higher likelihood of becoming and remaining temple-worthy than those without that support – missionaries and church leaders must do everything we can to baptize people into situations where there is support at home. This should be a key item of discussion when investigator progress reports are reviewed in ward council and PEC meetings.

There are exceptions that support these rules. For example, in the early years of the church in Korea the vast majority of converts were baptized singly, under age 23. These have become the spiritually powerful, visionary leaders of the Korean church today. Why? Though they were baptized singly, they shouldered tremendous responsibility as young, inexperienced people. The lesson: when we baptize people who do not bring friends at home into the church, we must be doubly careful to provide responsibility and nourishment, and be sure they are prepared to accept the same. I love this entire section—the data, the conclusions…they ring so true. Fantastic work that should be shared with all bishops/ward leaders/mission leaders.

Friends at Church: Wards that God Can Trust

In my studies of how we can better build the Kingdom of God, I have come to know three wards whose cultures inspire their members to do many small things, especially for the least of their brothers and sisters – and where great things have resulted. While the wards surrounding them struggle to baptize a few people in a year, these three wards each baptize twenty to thirty – and most remain faithful. The only way I can explain it is that God seems to trust these wards. Whenever someone new walks into these three chapels, they report feeling instantly loved. I don’t think that there are more “prepared” people living within the boundaries of these three wards than are living in neighboring wards. One ward is in Ireland; one in rural northern New England; and one in a comfortably affluent suburb of a major eastern city. I think the difference is that God trusts these three wards. He knows that when His children pray to Him for help and guidance, He can put them in the path of missionaries and members, or prompt them to go directly to the church, knowing that they will feel His love and His spirit when they arrive.

A convert in one of these wards recalled, in fact, that the first time she walked into the foyer of the church a two year-old girl walked up to her with her arms outstretched and gave her a hug – mimicking what she so often had seen adults do when someone new had walked through that door.

How can we transform the culture of a ward where most members do not even notice investigators and new members, let alone express their love to them, into a ward that God can trust? It can be done in three steps. The first step is for the bishop to articulate this vision for his ward. Here’s an example. I attended church in Tokyo several years ago. When I introduced myself as bishop of the Cambridge University Ward in Boston, a man commented, “I’ve heard of that ward. Isn’t that where all of those brainy students intellectualize the gospel and teach all kinds of strange things?” I was deeply troubled that my ward had that reputation even in such a distant place.

Later that day I read in the gospel of John, “By this shall all men know ye are disciples: if ye have love one to another.” When I returned to Boston I recounted this story in a sacrament meeting talk and said, “Here the Savior gave us the single most important way that we can distinguish His disciples from everyone else. He did not say that you can tell someone is His disciple if he pays his tithing or keeps the Word of Wisdom; and He certainly did not say that His disciples were those who indulged in skeptical speculation about doctrines that have yet to be revealed. Rather, He said we can tell who His real disciples are because they’re the ones who show love for one another.” I then expressed my hope that when I introduced myself as bishop of the Cambridge University Ward a distant sacrament meeting five years hence, I wanted to hear someone say, “I’ve heard of that ward. Isn’t that where the members show such love one to another?”

The second step in transforming a ward into one that God can trust is to repeat this challenge over and over in our talks. (how else? This is such a huge thing we should be better at, but it’s so difficult to change a culture!) Doing this in the University Ward gave our members a sense of “true north” that guided their interactions in many ways. We assigned specific ward members to ensure that nobody ever sat alone in a meeting; and to ensure that anyone they did not recognize was personally welcomed by at least ten people.

The third step is to convene a brief meeting of a small group of members at the end of each Sunday’s meetings, to ask the question, “Who could have been here today, who didn’t come?” I love this approach—They can then to make assignments to themselves and home / visiting teachers to contact each of those people that very day with a message like, “Are you okay? We missed you. Can I help with something? Can you come next week?” Most shepherds of the Lord’s flock count the number of sheep who returned to the fold on Sunday and store that number in a safe place for the quarterly report. However, the Lord said that the good shepherd would go out that very day and find the one sheep that did not return to the fold. A simple “huddle” that would net great results.

One other idea: in LP1 we also assigned people to different segments of the chapel to introduce themselves to new faces, and bring them forward to meet welcoming committee/bishopric members so no one left feeling unloved—this is certainly something that should be more naturally inherent in the fabric of the ward than planned for, or systemized.

Wards that do these three things can become wards that God can trust. God will know that if He moves upon people to walk through the doors of those chapels, He can trust the members to help them feel His love. It seems as if the Lord developed feelings of trust for the Cambridge University Ward. Baptisms the next year increased from 5 to 18.

I mentioned above the importance of asking ward missionaries to set aside the same regular time each week to serve, to ensure that nourishment in the good word of God continues uninterrupted. A couple of years ago we introduced the gospel to one of my students and her husband, who was a less-active member. When we baptized Connie I was concerned because her testimony seemed tenuous. But she wanted to be baptized, and we went ahead. We had no ward missionaries in our ward, but our wise ward mission leader set up a rhythmic system for teaching Connie the new member lessons. In 30 minutes on the Sunday evening before their baptism, he asked six different families in our ward to have Connie and Andrew into their home for home evening on the next six Mondays, to teach the sequence of new member lessons. He asked each to be sure that these would be deeply spiritual lessons filled with testimony and faith-building stories from their own lives. He gave the schedule to Connie and Andrew, and as they went through these new member lessons, I saw the light of the gospel change Connie’s countenance. The conversion that we had not been able to achieve in the pre-baptism lessons occurred in the post-baptism ones. What is more, Connie and Andrew felt deeply loved, and grew to love, each of these families. All were with us on the first anniversary of Connie’s baptism when they were sealed in the Boston Temple. This is a fantastic story! How can we really inspire people to reach out and develop genuine love and concern for those who are brought into the Church who don’t match our demographics? Assigning friends doesn’t work…and yet, genuine friendships are incredibly powerful…I struggle with this one in a big way—because I’ve been “assigned” and have tried very hard to see my efforts net little fruit.


In the past we have chosen measures of retention that are easy to collect or easy to achieve. One common measure of “retention” is the percentage of males over age 12 who have been ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood. Ordaining them is a good thing to do. But because we are supposed to ordain these people within a week of baptism, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that this percentage of converts has been “retained.” Another common measure of retention is the percentage of members baptized within the past 12 months who attended at least one meeting during the last month of the quarter. Someone who attends once per quarter can’t hold a calling in the church or contribute to its strength and growth. I have seen a draft of a new report form that will measure retention as the percentage of members who attend two meetings per month. Is this what we strive for? What good is accomplished by setting a standard that is inadequate for salvation?

False or inflated measures of retention breed complacent behavior. At a recent stake conference, for example, I offered to take some time during the Saturday priesthood leadership meeting to discuss the strengthening of new members. The stake president confidently replied that this wasn’t necessary – in his stake, retention consistently was above 70%. I subsequently learned that in each of the prior two years, about 40 adult men had been baptized in that stake; and yet only 5 adult men had been ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood during the prior year. The stake actually was doing a horrible job transforming adult male converts into worthy Elders; and yet the stake president was unconcerned because he was succeeding on the irrelevant metric the church had chosen to use.

The reason why we get what we measure is that the act of measurement spawns behavior to maximize that metric. This, therefore, is the measure of retention that we should use: Of those baptized within the last 24 months,

1) How many are known to the bishop as being temple-worthy?

2) How many are known not to be temple worthy?

3) What is the number whose temple worthiness is not known to the bishop?

We may be horrified at what we see when we strip away the padding and stand naked in front of the mirror with this true measure of how well we are transforming our new members into capable, committed, worthy latter-day saints. But taking this measure, and then holding ourselves accountable for improving it until every new convert remains temple worthy, is the best way to get the result the Lord and His prophet have asked us to deliver. It is within our power to begin using this measure now, within each of our stakes. There is no need to wait until the official quarterly report forms have been revised.

We need to create a return-and-report atmosphere in our ward leadership meetings where we ascertain the extent to which each progressing investigator is learning how to be nourished, being prepared to accept responsibility, and bringing friends and family from home with them into the church. This will make the discussion of the investigator progress report much more productive. And in these same meetings we must verify that each new member is being nourished, has an ideal tailored responsibility, and is developing more friends within the church.

This issue of accountability is one of the biggest areas I think we fail to understand and implement.

WE should hold investigators more accountable—just like encouraging them to get themselves to Church, I think there is power in giving them a checklist of new things to do as a new member, and then have regular interviews where we hold them accountable—accountable to get training for their calling, to make friends/reach out/give service, and accountability to make it through meaningful personal worship day in and day out—prayer, Sabbath observance, service, tithing, WofWisdom, Scripture…etc.

Just as I think accountability for home teaching is a huge gap we don’t fill (I’ve never been appropriately held accountable for my home teaching work), I don’t think we hold ward missionaries, ward mission leaders, or others accountable for preserving new members.


Friends, responsibility and nourishment in the good word of God are the three specified elements of the interface between investigation and membership. Because we don’t meet up at these three points, this interface is a crevasse into which most new members disappear. Those who disappear are children of our Heavenly Father whom He loves. Christ loves them so much that he suffered for their sins in advance, in the hope that that they would accept him. Ours is, therefore, a failure of colossal and eternal proportions. While we may forget the names of these people a few months after they fall through this crack, God and Christ do not forget them. They sorrow. They know and love these people as much as they know and love us.

Doing the things outlined above won’t take any more time and energy than we currently are expending to work around and fix and repair things at this broken interface. We need to make the specification clear, so that those who work on each side of the interface know what they need to do, when to do it, and how to do it. We need to train. We need to hold ourselves accountable. If we can embed the doing of these things into structure and processes and stop relying on sporadic individual initiative, the more regularly we will be able to do these things – and the better we will be able to help our new members enjoy the blessings of the gospel.

[i] I cannot cite the reference for the talk in which he recounted this story, unfortunately. Bishop Steve Temple of the Lowell MA Ward in the Nashua NH Stake told me of a similar experience that his son Chris has had, serving in the Brazil Ribeirao Preto Mission. His mission president in early 2005 declared that no women and children could be baptized unless the father also was baptized. Baptisms fell to nearly zero, but within four weeks the missionaries were bringing families to be baptized; and the pace of baptisms has not fallen. It is possible that a key reason why we aren’t baptizing family groups is that we haven’t tried hard enough. This mission president imposed a draconian rule that forced missionaries to engage the fathers in the families they were teaching.

[ii] Preach My Gospel, p. 215.

[iii] Preach My Gospel, p. 221.

[iv] Preach My Gospel, p. 111.

[v] The three locations in the scriptures that specify how we can tell whether an investigator is ready for baptism – Mosiah 18:8-10, Moroni 6:1-4 and D&C 20:37 are very consistent: None specify that knowledge of doctrine is a pre-requisite. In fact, Moroni 6:4 says that nourishment happens after baptism. This is contributes to my belief that, while both are important, it is more important to teach them how to be nourished by the scriptures, than it is to teach them what the scriptures say.

[vi] I collected this data from twelve stakes in the North America Northeast Area between 2000 and 2003.

[vii] Most ward missionaries languish in their jobs – not knowing clearly what to do, when to do it, and whether they have succeeded. As a result, most bishops aren’t motivated to call valuable members as ward missionaries, because they seem to do so little. Why do we see this? Many callings in the church are highly structured – and that structure helps members who serve in those positions magnify those assignments. For example, when we call a woman to serve as adviser to the 16-18 year-old young women, we don’t just say, “Your responsibility is to strengthen these girls,” shake her hand, and then let her wander off to do it. We create a structure around her that helps her know what to do, and when to do it. When she accepts this calling, she knows that she is signing up to spend every Tuesday evening from 6:30 to 9:30 with these girls, and that she needs to prepare in advance an activity for this time. She knows that every Sunday she’ll need to teach them a lesson from 11:10 to 12:00. A young womanhood award defines the path of progress that her girls are expected to follow. The structure doesn’t get in the way of her being inspired how to help these girls. It helps her tremendously.

In the face of this evidence that structure helps, what do we tell ward missionaries and home teachers of new members? “Your responsibility is to strengthen new members.” We then do little more than shake their hand and let them wander off to do it. We have lessons that new members should be taught. But that’s all the structure we give them. If we bring more structure to the work of ward missionaries in ways that are suggested here, I suspect that many more of them will feel good about, and motivated in, their callings.

[viii] Preach My Gospel, p. 8

[ix] See Isaiah 55:8 Mark 8:35 Matt. 11:28-30

[x] This statistic is from the 14 stakes in the Northeast that I’ve been tracking since 2000

[xi] This statistic comes from a survey done by one of the missions in the North America Northeast Area.

[xii] These judgments were provided by the bishops and/or ward mission leaders in these units.

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