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“The Missing Members”: Reactivation, 1909

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 27, 2008

An article in The Children’s Friend of June 1909 may not be the earliest expression of concern for those we now call “less actives,” but it is the earliest I recall seeing. It seems to me very current in its analysis of the reasons for inactivity, while the old-fashioned charm of its wording breaks through the tedium of pulpit lectures we have heard so often that I struggle not to tune them out.

“During the Civil War it was a dreadful thing to have the name of one’s friend appear in the list of the ‘missing’ after the battle. In our spiritual warfare, there is a record of splendid victories; but there is also a list, not often published, but which may be found by reference to the roll of the association, a list of the ‘missing.’ Their names are upon the roll, but their bodies, their minds, their talents — where are they?”

Next comes the lecture:

“Where are the missing members? What evil has befallen them? What new influence has come into their lives? Why have they wandered away from us? What can we do for them? How can we bring them back to their place? Every officer at every session ought to ask these questions very frequently and earnestly, for we owe a duty to our missing members. We are not through with them when they have disappeared from their accustomed places.”

The unnamed author enumerates the causes she (?) sees for inactivity:

1. “Excused absences”: “Some of them are sick, or disabled, or absent from their homes, or in some other way providentially hindered from attendance at the Primary. They would be greatly helped and encouraged if it were made known to them that they are missed.”

2. Habit: “Others have been kept from meeting with us for a time, and they had a sufficient reason for their absence during that time, but when it became possible for them to return, they had to some extent lost their interest. … They might be brought back by a cordial visit and a cordial invitation to return. The statement that they ought to return without waiting for a special invitation to do so may be perfectly true and reasonable, but it will not excuse us for neglecting our duty to them.”

3. Offense (you knew that had to come up, but look at the non-judgmental way it is handled): “There are others who have become offended. It may or may not be that they have had sufficient cause — that is not the important question just now. Every week of absence unbroken by a friendly call from an officer or some member of the association who is anxious for their return, only deepens their conviction that they are not either missed or wanted. It is for those of us who have noted their absence to break up that impression; and the more prompt our action, the easier will be our work. If our association stands for love and fellowship, the fact ought to be emphasized by our treatment of our missing members. Let us not suffer them to be even tempted to believe that we do not care for them. Let us prove to them that we are far from being indifferent as to their attitude to us.”

The author concludes, “There is an old saying, that ‘a penny saved is a penny earned.’ … [W]e plead for the old members who may be saved by a little well-directed effort. Look over your roll, and prepare a list of the ‘missing.’ Pray over it earnestly, and then set to work resolutely to reclaim them. Every missing member brought back into touch and love with your work will be worth all the efforts made to win them back.”

This actually makes me feel for the moment like I can and should search for “the missing” as if I already knew and loved them. Do you, like me, think old sermons and lessons put familiar ideas in an old but attractive dress so that we can notice them again?



6 Comments »

  1. Yes, I do. I really like how the woman (presumably) who wrote this has expressed herself. Today we use the word *retention*, and it just doesn’t sound quite right. It sounds like some kind of medical condition you don’t want to get.

    I like how this sounds so authentic. When she recommends that we “pray earnestly” and “work resolutely”, you get the feeling that she is a woman who does exactly that.

    Comment by Mark IV — June 27, 2008 @ 8:50 am

  2. Are there any ‘histories of inactivity’ that trace the formal and informal response to members’ drifting away?

    >”Do you…think old sermons…put familiar ideas in an old but attractive dress…?”
    Depends. Sometimes I find them quite compelling; others I think, “there is nothing new under the sun and Sisyphus needs some Prozac.”

    I like her phrase, “Every week of absence unbroken by a friendly call.”

    Comment by Edje — June 27, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

  3. I really like the overall spirit that comes through this, Ardis.

    I was in a church meeting last night – a very long meeting adapted for a specific purpose. It was wonderful to hear these sentiments expressed by our stake president – with the same emotion and sincerity. He said something in deep humility that really struck me:

    “A year from now, if we haven’t changed the way we are doing this, I will have failed in my stewardship.”

    There was no implied condemnation of anyone; he shouldered the responsibility do be a central part of the solution in front of all the stake leaders and said much of what you quoted in this post.

    Someone made a point that I liked – that those who sit in counsel to figure out why people are not active often have never been inactive – so they have no real clue personally why others are. The issue is when they try to craft solutions without any input from those they are trying to reach. It takes an extraordinary degree of humility to approach someone and ask, “What role did we play in your decision to stop coming to church – and what can we do to change so that you can feel comfortable coming back?” – but it is the way the Lord taught. (Go to the estranged brother directly and work it out with him..)

    Comment by Ray — June 27, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

  4. Thanks for the post, Ardis. Thanks for your comments, Ray.

    I was an inactive member of the church for an extended period of time. (Well, about eight months. It seemed long.) I learned many, many things through the experience that caused the period of inactivity and met many wonderful people, including some here on the blogs.

    However, it was all in all a very difficult experience.

    I had not considered the point that Ray made in his closing paragraph. I certainly wouldn’t suggest inactivity, but now I can understand some of what may happen as a person stays away from church, for whatever reason, and how difficult it can be to come back. Even though there was a very clear reason for me to stay away (health related), there was not a very clear reason to return. It took a real struggle to go back. Probably very few people in my “real” (non-blogging life) would imagine that or had any idea of my struggles. If they did, they certainly didn’t show it.

    The statement that they ought to return without waiting for a special invitation to do so may be perfectly true and reasonable…

    It may seem perfectly true and reasonable. It’s not so obvious from the other side.

    Comment by Amy T — June 27, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

  5. “It may seem perfectly true and reasonable. It’s not so obvious from the other side.”

    That’s why I liked the author’s not arguing whether there was “sufficient cause” for the member’s having gone missing. We spend too much time and effort too often going back to root out and pin down the justice (or not) of others’ behavior instead of going forward with the way things ought to be. Doesn’t matter whether the missing member deserves a special invitation, does it, when perhaps the simple issuing of such an invitation can wipe out a complex net of misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

    When I was inactive for quite some time (and I suspect for great numbers of us, the statement really is “when I was inactive,” not “if I had ever been inactive”), the obstacle to my return was as simple as not knowing what time my ward met. I didn’t want to knock on the door of some member who had ignored my existence for years and ask, because I didn’t want some sickly sweet and false welcome back, and the geography of my lot (I had a flag-shaped lot, meaning I had others’ backyards on all sides of me except for my very long, narrow driveway) meant that I couldn’t watch for other people’s leaving for church to guess the time. I had to move to a new city before I was comfortable in asking a neighbor what time church met. I know how silly that sounds as excuses go, but in my fragile state it was very real. A postcard from the RS president (since she never, ever, ever sent visiting teachers), or even somebody dropping one week’s bulletin at my door would have brought this “missing member” home a lot earlier.

    Thanks, you good ol’ regulars here, for your thoughtful comments. It seems to me that this unnamed author of 1909 hits the points that matter — care about your people, notice whether they’re there or not, don’t assign blame when they aren’t there, and ask them to come back. It won’t always work. But if we can mobilize hundreds to go hunting for a stranger lost in the mountains or deserts or at sea, how big a deal is it to make a phone call or write a postcard?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 28, 2008 @ 9:11 am

  6. I like the practical, loving tone of her admonition. They’re missing; let’s find them. Let’s let them know we love and miss them. That there’s a timeless suggestion.

    Comment by Jami — June 28, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

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