When one of our sons returned from a South American mission, he said the biggest problem they dealt with was retention. It was relatively easy to get local residents baptized, but much harder to keep them coming regularly.
This should sound familiar to many around the world, who are working to get once-excited new members to continue taking the weekly Sacrament and serve in callings. To be honest, I feel we can also work on retention with returned missionaries who have fallen less active.
Today there are many elderly widows and widowers who have relocated to a new, vibrant ward brimming with kids of all ages. But not senior citizens. Some of these elderly saints feel overlooked. They see people planning parties and carpools, talking about invitations to baptisms and weddings, but they never feel pulled into the hub of things. It’s easy to feel depressed and lonely, and stop coming to church as often.
There are also many names on our rosters whom we don’t know. They’ve chosen not to attend for a variety of reasons. Maybe it was Covid. Sometimes they’ve been offended. Or they disagree with something about the church’s teachings. Maybe they simply find other things they’d rather do. Whatever the reason, these are sheep our Savior expects us to gather. Somehow.
If you’ve tried the standard methods of reaching out, without success, how about some out-of-the-box ideas?
A friend of mine decided to befriend an elderly sister in our ward. She’s active, but doesn’t have a circle of close friends. My friend told her she wanted her to be her Postcard Pen Pal. The woman wasn’t interested until my friend explained that it would just be the two of them. Now they jot short notes to each other, and send them through the mail.
The mail—imagine! What an eccentric idea, right? In this era of texting and messaging, here are two people who are polishing their penmanship and writing sweet notes just as if it were 50 years ago. Do you remember your delight at getting a card or letter? There was happy anticipation as we’d tear it open, and then a wonderful escape from the cares of the day as we cherished someone’s kind expressions. Best of all, we could save it! We could pin it to the fridge, re-read it on our desk, or save it in a file.
These two sisters are learning so much about each other that would never come up in our hurried conversations between meetings. My friend is seeing an entirely different side of the elderly sister. What a fun discovery!
What if we asked someone less active to help with their skills and talents? Instead of assigning someone in class to help drive donations to the food bank or the apartment of a new immigrant, why not call and share that blessing with someone you rarely see?
If a bookcase needs moving, a fence needs repairing, or a roof needs a shingle, is there someone in your ward who could help? Could someone teach the Young Men and Women how to build outdoor steps or a headboard for a bed? Could someone be on a panel that teaches ward members how to manage finances? Or health? Plant a garden? Write a resume? Car repair? How to make the best pulled pork in the world? How to shoot baskets? Paint a picture?
These people have expertise in so many areas, and very often we lack exactly the knowledge they have. Are we desperate? Yes! We need them. And they, like all human beings, need to feel needed. Friendships may grow and walls may come down.
A third idea is to invite them to something cool. A sister once invited me to a banquet where she was being honored. Wow! Another time one took me to a ballgame. Other ideas could include movies, lunches, local exhibits, author book signings, gym classes, home and garden tours, college lectures, concerts, plays, a shooting range, boating, flea markets, cooking classes, train rides—there is really so much going on that most folks would like to do.
How about upping our service? Instead of just a visit, what if we volunteered to drive them to doctor appointments? Pick up groceries for them? Tutor their teenager? House-sit their dog? Take them to the airport? Do they need yard work done or household repairs? We can get a crew over there. What would you offer to do if this were a famous celebrity who had just moved into your ward? Aha. Really think about that and notice how willing you’d be to expand your list of favors.
If we’re going to gather sheep, we have to look beyond the ones we already know. Think about the last party you attended, and your list of close friends. Are all the people just like you? The same age, religion, economic bracket, race, stage of life? Mix it up. Invite people much younger and much older to socialize with you. Who seems lonely and could use a friend? We all need to expand our circle and make friendships that broaden us. Let’s cast that net a little wider, and bring the Gospel message to people who have been waiting to find the truth.
By loving these people and genuinely wanting to get to know them better, we soften hearts. We use the approach Christ would use, to look for the positive and extend love. Everyone is born innocent and sweet. Then we get hurt, damaged, and sometimes angry. If the person you want to help fits this description, keep their younger self in mind. Realize that they’re still that wonderful little child of God, and see them as He does. Keep reaching out with pure sincerity and caring. You may be surprised at what will happen.
Of course, we want to pray about our ideas and listen for inspiration from our Heavenly Father. The good news is that He often responds quickly and with surprising detail when what we’re praying about is what He wants, too.
That seems to be the key, doesn’t it? When we are about His business, He will help us. He wants each of His children to find the restored gospel, and when we offer to be tools in His hands, it’s amazing what can happen.
Hilton teaches Seminary. She is also an award-winning playwright and the author of many best-selling Latter-day Saint books. Those, her humor blog, and YouTube Mom videos can be found on her website.