“Duck! The ceiling is going to cave!” I heard this countless times as a less active member when I finally attended church. It wasn’t funny the first time I heard it, and it became more offensive each time thereafter. Hint: No matter how well you think you know someone, or how close you think you are to someone, this will sting. The person may never tell you, but sting it will.
I was not active in church for 20 years, and I think I have a pretty good idea how it feels to be less active. Let me clear up the biggest misconception about less active members. Latter-day Saints often believe that people become less active because they “lost their testimony,” “their testimony wasn’t strong enough,” or they “never had a testimony in the first place.” This simply is not true. I have no statistics to support this (how could you possibly get statistics about something like this). You’ll just have to understand that this is an area where I’ve had lots of personal experience.
My father was raised a Christian Scientist, converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, became less active, checked himself into a Catholic hospital to die, and asked for an Episcopal funeral because my mother was the secretary at the Episcopal Church. When he died, The Book of Mormon had a prominent place on the back of the toilet—his “reading room.” My sister and I took turns reading him his favorite scriptures from the Bible and the Book of Mormon the day he died. He had not attended The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in years, but he read the Book of Mormon, and he had a testimony.
In the 20-year period that I was less active, I read the Book of Mormon six times cover to cover (in addition to reading individual passages on a regular basis). I know members (unfortunately) who attend church every Sunday and yet have never read the Book of Mormon cover to cover in their entire lives. I had a strong testimony, never lost it, and indeed it grew while I was less active.
The Naked Truth
Prepare yourself. This will hurt. Most less active members don’t come to church because you hurt their feelings. Yes, you. Not the member sitting next to you, across from you, or who lives down the street from you. It may have been quite innocent. You may never know what you did, or what you said. There is one thing that is certain. If you don’t think you’ve ever hurt someone’s feelings, then you must believe you are on the same playing field with the Savior.
Since we all are responsible for hurting someone’s feelings at some point, then we all must be responsible to fix it.
The fix isn’t easy, and it requires time and patience. It is a rare occurrence when hurt feelings can be mended overnight. Sometimes it takes weeks, months, or years. In my case, it took 20 years. It takes good people who are friends with you even if you are not going to church—friends who don’t mention the church unless you bring it up first. It takes home teachers who actually show up, and who are not condescending when they do show up. It takes visiting teachers who don’t say, “I don’t have anything in common with her,” or “I feel uncomfortable there,” or “I have to take a shower afterwords because of the cigarette smoke.” I was a Relief Society President for several years, and I’ve heard it all.
The Wrong Moves
Here’s a list of “don’ts”:
Don’t criticize and don’t judge are obvious. Don’t assume you know why someone is not attending church, because you are probably wrong. Don’t assume you know how the person feels, because unless you have been there, you probably don’t. Don’t push a less active member to go to church, because the person will most likely push back. If the person confides in you his/her reason for not going to church, don’t minimize his/her feelings. Those feelings are valid, and it’s not your place to tell someone how to feel.
The Right Moves
Here’s a list of “dos”:
A friend is a friend in good times and in bad, whether he/she attends church, or not. If you are serving someone (with humility and love; not because you think you have to), it’s easier for that person to open up to you. Home teaching and visiting teaching are considered four-letter words to a lot of members. Just remember that LOVE is a four-letter word. I’ve learned the last few years that often less active members who won’t let me in their home will let me correspond by mail and often friend them on Facebook.
Recently a less active sister, who still won’t let me in her home, sent me a Facebook message telling me how much she enjoys my monthly letters, hearing about my family, and receiving a spiritual message. She told me that she had been speaking with her mother in American Samoa and her mother wants me to write letters to her including spiritual messages. My first thought: I’m sure she has her own visiting teacher; I don’t have time for this. My second thought: This is a way I can serve the sister I’m supposed to be visiting, and it may help her mother as a bonus.
I can’t say enough about patience. My husband waited 17 years to be sealed to me in the temple. My friends loved and served me for all the years I was less active. Last year one of those friends passed through the veil. I don’t know what I’m going to do the next time something breaks in my home. This man knew every inch of my house and all its idiosyncrasies. He was there when I built a headboard for my bed and then realized it was so large and bulky that it would take power tools and brains to install it. He was there for dry rot in the bathroom, warping hardwood floors, and a new roof. He was in it for the long haul. There were others who were in it for the long haul with me. Without them all, I would still be out there as the lost sheep—the one.
Laurie White is a grandmother in Sacramento, California.You can find her on Twitter as @LaurieBee, or