This post is the first of the series “Roads back to the straight and narrow” that focus on the different ways inactive or less active members come back to the fold, and the things active members can sometimes do to help.
Let’s gain wisdom from a few stories and quotes from general conference on one particular path back: An inactive member who’s said “go away” + a persistent active member who doesn’t accept the first time they’re told to go away.
Selective hearing and persistence
Some members ignore the first few times they hear the word “no”, “go away” and “don’t come back”. They keep reaching out to the inactive member in a friendly, casual, and nonthreatening way, inviting them back to Church. As with all approaches, members should be prayerful and thoughtful about how they’re coming across. The difference between slightly annoying persistence and truly disturbing, offensive intrusion depends on many factors such as timing, the personalities of everyone involved, and the presence of the Spirit.
To use a fun example of considering your personality before attempting this, if these characters were Church members, they could or could not pull this approach off:
Yes: Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings. (Sean Austin in almost anything, actually.) Samwise is loyal, non-threatening, and without guile. His persistence and determination is touching, not intimidating or disrespectful.
Maybe: Inigo Montoya in Princess Bride
NO: Jack Byrnes in Meet the Parents. (Robert Deniro in almost anything, actually.) Too scary and intimidating. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to help inactive members if you’re intimidating; you just might want to try a different approach!
I was discussing this post with my husband Mark, asking him what he knew of Church policy on a “no contact” request from an inactive member. I also asked him what he would do if a member said to go away and not come back.
Mark said he’d had quite a bit of experience with inactive members asking for no contact while he was serving in a Branch Presidency in Baltimore. He says he would sometimes get threatened when he would contact an inactive member. He had things yelled at him such as, “I told you people to stop coming here! If you come back, I’m gonna kill you!” and “I’m gonna lose my mind if the Church doesn’t leave me alone!” and “I’m gonna call the cops if you come back!”
Mark was willing to comply, for the time-being, with their request for no contact, but he was worried about other branch members who might miss the message not to visit this person or family. He knew he would only be in the Branch for a few years while attending graduate school. He didn’t want later Church members to get physically hurt. Mark would tell the inactive, hostile member that he wouldn’t come back, but that other members might in the future. Mark explained that the only way to end all contact with the Church was to have their names removed. He explained the process and offered to provide them with the resources they needed to do it. Every single time, the inactive member backed down. Despite even threatening Mark with death for visiting them on behalf of the Church, they still didn’t want their names removed.
Mark was in Baltimore during the late 1990s; Church policy may have changed since then. When I searched LDS Tech, which is an official Church site, the most recent post I could find was from December 2016. A website administer reported that there isn’t a Church-wide “do not contact” list. He also indicated that his most recent instruction from the Church was not to create any “do not contact” marks or codes on a membership record. He added this wise observation: “In my personal opinion, members are not free to be members and expect a request for no contact to be honored. That’s just not how it works for any group or organization. They’re not free to be members on their own terms. If they really want no further contact, then they should consider having their names removed.”
This seems in keeping with what Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin once taught: “All inactive members should be considered candidates for activation regardless of their response to any previous approach. We must use kindness, patience, long-suffering, love, faith, and diligence. They must feel our genuine concern and untiring love.” Elder Wirthlin went on to share this story:
Recently, I attended a stake conference and heard a story of member activation that moved me deeply. The bishop of one of the wards in the stake took a keen interest in arousing inactive brethren to Church activity. He knew that the first step was one of communication, that he must have a meaningful visit with each inactive brother.
So he began by telephoning one of them. The wife answered the phone and said, ‘Bishop, I surely appreciate your call. My husband is outside, but I will have him come to the phone.’
When the husband heard that it was the bishop that wished to speak to him, his reaction was as expected. He attempted to sidestep this phone call and responded, ‘Tell the bishop that I’m out sawing logs,’ and with a humorous touch, ‘Tell him I’m dead.’
The brother spoke the truth more literally than he realized. It was true. He was sawing logs, and tragically, he was dead to the spiritual things of his life.
A good wife, however, is a mighty force in any man’s life, and, in a kindly manner, she persuaded her husband to come to the phone.
Then the bishop, using the power of suggestion and in a friendly voice, said, ‘I should very much appreciate having a visit with you for a few moments this evening in my office.’ The brother couldn’t refuse so warmhearted an invitation, and a meeting took place.
The testimony of the bishop and his deep concern kindled a fire in the heart of the inactive brother, and he agreed to join the temple preparation class that was about to begin.
Another story of persistence was shared by Elder David B. Haight in general conference:
Recently I heard of a far-sighted home teacher in an elders quorum who was given the name of an inactive member. On his way to priesthood meeting early one Sunday morning, he called at the home of this member.
‘I’m on my way to priesthood meeting and thought you might like a ride.’
This man, startled and somewhat angry at this early Sunday morning disruption of his sleep, said, ‘No. I’m not interested,’ and slammed the door. He wondered how the Church got his name.
The following Sunday morning again the doorbell rang. The member opened the door and saw this same individual, bright and smiling, on his way to priesthood.
‘Just dropped by in case you had changed your mind. We would like you to join us.’
He got an unfriendly reply of, ‘Go away! Leave me alone!’ and slammed the door shut.
A week later the events were repeated. The home teacher added, ‘We have a great group of men. We need you. You’re a member of our quorum. Would you mind if I stop by next Sunday?’ This man, who wanted to get lost from activity, decided the only way to stop his early-morning caller was to go to the meeting and prove he was not interested.
The next Sunday when the home teacher rang the doorbell, he was not greeted with a ‘Go away! Leave me alone!’ but with a man dressed and ready to prove his disinterest. But the spirit of the priesthood meeting, the friendly handclasps, the sincere interest changed his attitude and awakened the conscience of a man who needed a gentle push.
These two general conference stories of persistent members refusing to take the first “no” for an answer are inspiring. However, it is not always the path back for everyone. Sometimes persistence can push an inactive member even further away, as Elder Brent H. Nielson shared in a recent general conference talk, Waiting for the Prodigal.
The important thing to remember is that there are many paths back to the straight and narrow way, and persistently inviting someone back is one method to consider.