Since today is Super Bowl Sunday , I had plenty of time to blog after church (never seen a game, never will). This week is when Mormon bishops worldwide have to send a report to Church headquarters that declares the tithing status of each member of their wards (congregations) for last year. Every member is listed as either full-tithe payer, partial-tithe payer, non-tithe payer, or exempt (e.g., missionaries). Every member with an income is expected to tithe 10% of it to the church, and each member needs to be accounted for in the report. Members are supposed to meet with their bishop at the end of the year to declare their tithing status, but most do not. There are 648 members on my ward’s roster, and our tithing report was 12 pages long.
Since our average Sunday church attendance is around 130 souls, that means that there are around 500 members in my ward boundaries who either seldom or never come to church. In light of this depressing reality, I admire someone like Professor Ira Sheskin, an expert in finding and reaching out to Jews through phone surveys. According to Ha’aretz, “Finding Jews among respondents is a little like finding needles in a haystack.” I can certainly commiserate with the good professor.
Even in a hierarchical, centralized church like mine, keeping track of members is not easy. Each member in my ward has an electronic record that travels with him. When someone moves into my ward boundaries, we request his record from the previous ward. When he moves out, we send it to his new bishop. However, many members who no longer come to church don’t bother to let us know when they move and/or change address. I sent out the yearly Christmas letter in December to 300 ward members, and 33 were returned as undeliverable. That translates to more than 10% of the ward with unknown addresses; finding them is usually difficult if not impossible.
Of course, there are also plenty of Mormons who move to a new city and don’t let their new ward know of their arrival. Missionaries regularly meet people in our ward boundaries who claim to be Mormons but are unknown to us. To reach these folks, we use shoe leather instead of phone surveys. The ten missionaries assigned to our ward are tasked with reaching out to less-active members, and their efforts are supported by several ward missionaries and the men’s and women’s organizations in the ward. We do our best to find and befriend fellow members, regardless of their current life situation, and encourage them to come back to church.
Like Professor Sheskin, our ward leaders have our work cut out for us as we attempt to identify and fellowship the 80% of our members – at least on paper – who are not in the pews on Sundays. For encouragement I look to the Talmud, which reminds us that “[W]hoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
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