LOSING THE SHEEP: AN INTRODUCTION
Lavina Fielding Anderson
William Hendricks, a graduate of Harvard University and Dallas Theological Seminary, published an interesting book in 1983 called Exit Interviews, an exploration of the phenomenon of what he calls "disillusioned Christians" who are departing from formal affiliation, even though they often are "quite articulate regarding spiritual matters, ... have remarkably vibrant spiritual lives, and touchingly close friendships with a kindred spirit or two. But in the main, they tend to nurture their relationship with God apart from the traditional means of [the] church."1 He argues persuasively that churches are overlooking a great source of knowledge by not listening to the disaffected:
One of the themes of President Gordon B. Hinckley’s presidency has been concern about the retention of newly baptized members and the reactivation of the inactive (who have been referred to for a number of years as the "less active").2 Obviously there is a serious problem, to judge by the repeated emphasis. However, since 1985, activity rates have joined many historical records and the Church’s budget among the closely guarded secrets that the membership at large does not have access to. Consequently, the dimensions of the problem can only be guessed at, and local units are expected to solve the problem with only the statistical information they can gather locally and with whatever ideas, programs, and resources they can muster locally, the success stories reported in Church publications, and the very general counsel by Church leaders such as President Hinckley. Furthermore, since most of President Hinckley’s comments have been directed at the plight of new converts, it is not clear if their reasons for inactivity are different from the reasons of those who are members for many years and then become inactive or if different approaches are more successful with one population than another. It is impossible to avoid the ironic conclusion that Church leaders want to solve a problem that they are reluctant to admit exists.
The most recent studies that are publicly available are based on a study done by the Research Division of the Church during 1981-84. They show that "about 75 percent of lifelong Latter-day Saints experience a period of inactivity lasting a year or more." About 60 percent of them eventually come back. The largest age group within the 75 percent falls between ages fourteen and twenty. These same studies show that in the United States, "85 percent of Latter-day Saint children under age ten attend Church meetings three to four times a month, but ... declines ... to 55 percent during their mid-twenties. It then rises to 60 percent at age forty, falls to a low of 50 percent during the mid-fifties, and rises again to 60 percent by age seventy." The published report based on these data, although it gave inactivity figures for lifelong members, did not give inactivity statistics for converts. It did, however, report rather contradictorily:
Based on either the same data or data compiled at about the same time, Tim B. Heaton projected that American Mormons by age sixty-five would consist of the following populations: 22 percent always active, 44 percent reactivated, 19 percent disengaged believer, and 14 percent disengaged nonbeliever. Since he does not differentiate between lifelong and convert members, it is not clear how these data mesh with the figure of 75 percent inactivity among lifelong members with an eventual 60 percent of that fraction returning eventually to activity.4
In 1984, according to the Church News, Church-wide sacrament meeting attendance was 53 percent.5 In February 1985, Church spokesman Jerry Cahill, obviously using this figure, told a reporter that sacrament meeting attendance worldwide was 43 percent, but 53-55 percent in the United States.6 These combined percentages, even though almost fifteen years old and almost certainly outdated, would give an average attendance of 48.5 percent. Applied to the current membership figure of 10,070,524,7 this activity rate would yield 4,884,204 active members—and the current definition of "active" is that the member attends one meeting per month.
Slightly later figures, dating from perhaps the mid-1980s to the early 1990s but not publicly available, are reported in Jeff Burton’s essay "A View from the Sieve" in this issue: "Of every twenty persons baptized worldwide, six are either excommunicated or ask to have their names removed. Of the remaining fourteen, seven become nonparticipators. Of the last seven, only three or four remain lifelong temple recommend holders." Japan has over 100,000 of whom about 20,000 are considered active. "Of active Mormons, 60-75 percent are unruffled true believers, 30-40 percent are unsure, and about 5 percent are disbelievers."8
While the Mormon Alliance applauds President Hinckley’s solicitude for new converts, this issue of the Case Reports of the Mormon Alliance focuses on inactive segments of the Church population that should be seen as even more valuable in terms of years of devoted service, numbers of children being raised in the Church, missions, and amount of tithing being paid. It begins with some historical background on resigning from the Church, an option for dignified and principled withdrawal that has existed only since 1989, and the stories of several formerly committed members who took this option and why. It also includes a cluster of articles about Mormons with same-sex attraction who, despite the official position of the Church that they are welcome as celibates, found their leaders interpreting that position far differently. Part 3 reports the experiences of missionaries who, far from returning with strengthened faith and commitment, left the mission field with their faith damaged and their trust in leaders shattered. A fourth group is represented by David P. Wright, an impressively trained biblical scholar, whose best efforts at working out a synthesis of knowledge and faith were rewarded first with firing from Brigham Young University and next with excommunication from the Church. Other personal experiences and context-setting articles accompany these reports.
Taken collectively, the individuals in these case reports represent hundreds of hours of Church service devoted to callings, attending meetings, paying tithing, studying scriptures, and faithfully obeying the commandments. If their extended families and friends are included, these totals mount well into the thousands of hours. How is it possible that the Church does not suffer from the loss of these members, from the withdrawal of their talents and gifts, from the rechanneling of their love and spirituality, from the fear and contempt in which their children will almost certainly hold the Church? How can they be dismissed so easily? How can their withdrawal from the body of Christ leave it unmaimed, unwounded?
The three most common explanations that active members give for the inactivity of others are: (1) They are sinful and/or lazy; (2) They don’t understand the gospel; and (3) They let someone hurt their feelings. All three reasons assume that the fault is that of the departed member. There is seldom or ever any recognition that the Church itself—by the inherent inequities of its patriarchal and hierarchical structure, by the level of its demands on ordinary people with other obligations and real time and money constraints, and by its complete lack of any kind of system for adjudicating and mediating disagreements between members and leaders—may itself contribute to inactivity. While it is true that members must take the responsibility for their own activity, it sounds suspiciously like blaming the victim to leave them with all of the blame and guilt.
Furthermore, in the case reports reported in this volume, these facile answers simply do not explain the facts. In most cases, these members began from a position of zealous and fervent commitment and were detached from the Church only by bruising and repeated abuse.
It might be easy to dismiss each of these case reports as a trouble-making or weak-faithed member whom the Church is better off without. Dismissive statements from General Authorities abound about "dissidents" and "apostates." These labels merely communicate: "We have nothing to learn from you." An extreme form of this attitude occurred in President Hinckley’s fireside on 7 March 1994 at Brigham Young University, given to an audience of approximately 20,000 students and broadcast simultaneously by satellite to approximately 40,000 students in the Church Education System. This was six months after the disciplinary actions about Lynne Kanavel Whitesides, Avraham Gileadi, Paul J. Toscano, Maxine Hanks, Lavina Fielding Anderson, and D. Michael Quinn. President Hinckley observed: "We had five people excommunicated in properly constituted councils last fall in Utah and you would have thought to read the papers that the whole church was coming unsewed. It isn’t. I took occasion to note that in October, [sic] when those five were excommunicated, there had been in that same period 5,140 baptisms—convert baptisms—right here in the state of Utah. Now that’s a pretty good ratio, no matter how you figure the odds."9
This combination of bottom-line boardroom thinking and (even less appropriate) gambling jargon sounds harsh. Moreover, it sounds alien to these words of Jesus Christ, the head of the Church:
While the Church’s triumphal 10 million members represent a milestone that is indeed a cause for celebration, the unheralded, undocumented, and apparently unregretted inactivity of over half of those members should be a cause for sorrow. The steady disappearance of those who find that they have trustingly held up their hands for bread to receive only stones should cut us all to the heart. More importantly, these disappearances should be a cause for repentance—for acknowledging the problem, for listening to those whom the Church has injured, for asking forgiveness, and for working with greater sensitivity and commitment to build a community of Christ.
1William Hendricks, Exit Iinterviews (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), 21, 17.
2Space precluded the printing in this issue of a lengthy essay I wrote exploring six questions about inactivity: (1) the historical background to President Gordon B. Hinckley’s current emphasis on reactivation, (2) the similarly phrased statements by which he has expressed his concern and the assumptions that seem to underlie them, (3) a survey of the sketchy, localized, and anecdotal statistics on activity that are publicly available, (4) the "Lost Sheep Program," a quasi-secret project at Church headquarters to locate members whose addresses are not currently known and who, therefore, cannot be assigned to a local unit, (5) an anecdotal exploration of some causes of inactivity, and (6) an exploration of the need to combine concern for the individual with respect for that individual’s choices.
3Perry H. Cunningham, "Activity in the Church," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992), 1:16. It is not clear how the "first year or two" after baptism is the period of greatest risk of inactivity if 70 percent of this inactive group stop attending "within three to five years." The mission of the Research Division is to "evaluate the effectiveness of Church programs, materials, activities, policies and procedures to determine how well they serve their intended purpose in helping proclaim the gospel, perfect the saints, and redeem the dead. The division responds to requests to conduct research from general authorities and from Church departments and organizations. It coordinates all Church research projects and ensures that the research is conducted independently and objectively."
4Tim B. Heaton, "Vital Statistics: Demographic Characteristics," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4:1527.
5"Survey Lists LDS as Best Church Attenders," Church News, 10 Feb. 1985, 3.
6As quoted in Associated Press, Salt Lake City, "Dying Woman Continues Fight to Get Off Church Rolls," (Spokane, Washington) Spokesman-Review, 24 Feb. 1985, A-14.
7Statistical Report, 1997," presented by F. Michael Watson, Secretary to the First Presidency, Ensign, May 1998, 22.
8D. Jeff Burton, private sources, cited in "View from the Sieve," this issue, 29 note 2.
9Transcription of audio tape in my possession from rebroadcast, KBYU-FM, 13 March 1994. See also Alf Pratte, "General Authority Reveals New LDS Role in Cambodia," Salt Lake Tribune, 7 March 1994, B-3; Rommyn Skipper, "Cambodia Recognizes LDS Church," Deseret News, 7 March 1994, B-2. He apparently revised this figure sharply downward in a later interview with the New York Times, but the point he was making—that convert baptisms outnumbered excommunications so the excommunications were, consequently, unimportant—remained the same. Excerpted from the New York Times was a quotation from President Gordon B. Hinckley made "last week" (presumably on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Smith brothers’ martyrdom: "‘Every individual in the church is free to think as he pleases. But when an individual speaks open and actively and take measures to enlist others in opposition to the church and its programs and doctrines, then we feel there is cause for action.’ Hinckley denied that any of the recent disciplinary actions taken against Mormon intellectuals and feminists were ‘orchestrated from the headquarters of the church’ and said that church officials have an ‘earnest desire to work with’ excommunicated members and to bring them back into the fold. He added that the disciplinary actions should be weighed against the 1,540 [sic] conversions in Utah in the same period. ‘If we have a problem today, the problem is growth,’ Hinckley said." "It’s All in the Numbers," in "World View" column, compiled by Peggy Fletcher Stack, Salt Lake Tribune, 9 July 1994, B-I.