None are Forbidden: My Ministy among Less Active Members

Recently, I had a conversation with the Sisters serving in our ward. They had just been given a list of less active members to visit in their section of our ward boundaries, and they were really excited about it. But not for the reason you might think.

I looked at the junior companion. I understood her position exactly. This is her first area, and she has been here for six months with four different companions, once in a trio. I've been in those situations before, in both of my first areas, so I know how it feels. (Yes, both of my first areas. It's complicated.)

"Hath the Lord commanded any that they should not
partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto, Nay;
but all men are privileged the one like unto the other,
and none are forbidden."  2 Nephi 26: 28

"You've already been to all of the less active members on your list a dozen times now, haven't you." I said. It wasn't a question. Her laugh was hollow and she nodded. Her companion jumped in.

"We've been asked not to come back by most of them, and we're really hurting for new investigators right now."

"It'll get better once the winter lets up," I replied, speaking from experience. But I understood the lesson they were in the process of learning better than they did.

Missionary work cannot only include success among strangers and new members of the Church. As a missionary, the Lord makes it very clear that He expects you to labor sufficiently among his wandering sheep before he will give you success with new efforts. Why should He bless you, He asks, with more of His children when you are incapable of caring for those you already have?

In time, these sisters and the three elders we have serving in our ward will each come to understand a different part of that answer.

My Experience

Visiting less active members was difficult as a missionary. It was some of the hardest, most frustrating work we did. People have no problem lashing out against you for a list of grievances so long there isn't time or energy enough in the world to compile it. I struggled to separate their feelings about their inactivity from the way they felt about me personally, and I was wounded on a profound level by my interactions with less active members during my mission.

The stories are all different, the people are different, but the feelings and emotions are usually the same. Anger. Sadness. Disappointment. Loneliness. Sometimes even hatred. And you could never know which reaction to anticipate when you knocked on that door. And after making hundreds of these visits you eventually begin to see, as a pure statistical fact, that most of the people you visit are not going to come back to Church. Not in the time you're serving there anyway.

Most of them have heard everything you have to say, so you might as well throw every lesson you know out the window. If you ask them with all of the sincerity in your heart how you can help them, many will not trust you enough to give you an honest answer. If you try to love them, they can easily and intentionally misunderstand you and your motives and insist you don't really care. With each attempt, you recognize that the only one who can help them, the person they really want and need, is the Lord.

And yet, the only person who keeps showing up is You. The reaction is palpable. You again?

Yup. Me again. How are you?...

You know you served in Brazil when
you know how to knock on this door
I visited less active leadership, presidents of every kind, including a stake president. I visited entire families who had fallen away and joined other churches. Some of them even organized their own churches. I visited the elderly, who couldn't return because of their poor health. I visited returned missionaries; one who had same gender attraction. He told me he had a profound testimony of the restored gospel, then asked me, "How can I be an active member when I am what I am?" I visited angry old men and abandoned young women. I visited families torn apart and impoverished by drugs and addiction. And I have been argued with in doorways and on streets by my share of people who have had their names taken off of the records of the Church.

In each circumstance, I had a beautiful child of God before me who expected me to be someone I was not, to give them an answer I didn't have. And my instructions from the Lord almost never varied.

Tell them I love them. Tell them I hear their prayers. Invite them to come back to Church.

Only those who have made such visits, with the same instructions, will ever understand how easy it is to look upon yourself in that moment and shrink.

Why should the Lord bless us with our efforts to gain new membership when we are incapable of caring for His children He has already given to us?

Because we will always be fallible and incapable. But that cannot stop the work of God from progressing. We cannot punish those would come now because those who came before them were dissatisfied. We cannot give up hope that many wandering souls may yet return and be saved. The Lord wants all of His children to return to Him, regardless of their circumstances. (See 2 Nephi 26: 23-28)

One family, whose love I cherish more dearly than my own life, were less active for decades. They returned, and it wasn't because of anything we did. They turned to God, and every blessing they experienced was because of Him. He made their lives better. He gave them answers to their prayers. He healed them. He is their salvation, not me. I was only privileged to witness the miracle, to learn with them, and receive their love.

God is perfect. The Church is not. Those who have doubts about the Church's imperfections seem to think that "the rest of us" have it all figured out--that we've managed to convince ourselves by some miraculous faith that the Church really is perfect after all. That the only way forward is to ignore everything that is unfair about life in exchange for the title of a Disciple.

I wish they could understand that the title of Disciple isn't something that anyone has the right or ability to dispense, nor do we claim to do so. If only they could understand how keenly aware we are of our imperfections. How bitterly we struggle to be more than we are, specifically to serve them, because that is what they expect from us. 

If only they knew how similar we are to them. We struggle or have struggled against the same problems and doubts they have. We are just as dependent on the God who gave us life for our answers. We are made of the same flesh, blood, and desires to know Christ. We fall down and pick ourselves back up again, the same way they do.

We all beg at God's feet for the same mercy.

I have never experienced a problem or a person that made me feel like the logical solution was for me to leave the Church. There is too much help, too much solace, too many good intentions, too much learning, too many miracles, too much communion with Jesus Christ for me to do that. I am too surrounded in my Heavenly Father's love to even consider it. And even though I have already decided that there will never come a day when my mind or heart will go to that place, it doesn't mean I'm off the hook to never go to that bitter place for someone else.

Against the Wind
Liz Lemon Swindle
The less active visits I have done throughout my life, the intentional and unintentional, have taught me something crucial about divine love. It continues long after our human faith has all but been extinguished. God's patience never falters, and never waivers with His children even when they spurn His advances. He feels the pain of ALL of His children profoundly. He continues to seek after those who wander, no matter how long they have been away. Even after they remove their names from His Church--He knows where to find them. He wants to save them, and He will not stop trying until the very end.

I have a suspicion that, in some future day, the thousands and millions of less active visits that "amounted to nothing" will all stand as a witness to that unconquerable, inexhaustible love. The full vision and understanding of that witness may be the only thing that brings some people back to us.

I know God lives. I know He loves all of His children. He knows where they are in each and every stage of their lives. He knows their needs and their intentions. He knows how to rescue them when they wander from Him. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ to atone for our sins, to be our rescuer.

Why do we do less active member visits when so few people want our help, or respond well to them? I know it's because it's one of the many things Jesus would be doing if He were here personally, and I know I can expect to do no less as His disciple.

I know the Church is true. I know we have a living prophet on the earth today. If we remain fixed to the body of Christ, nothing we would experience in any other place or condition could ever compare.

I leave you my witness in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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