The why and when of baptism

How prepared should a person be before being baptized? How long should this preparation take? Recently the permabloggers had a brief e-mail exchange on this topic. The participants found it interesting to submit it to our broader forum.

A number of Scriptural passages simply present baptism as a sign of repentance and acceptance of the Gospel, the gateway to salvation. People were baptized the very same day they heard the message, sometimes even in large groups, carried by a momentum of immediate conversion. Also in the earlier days of the Restored Church this procedure seem to have been applied.

Over the years we moved to a system where more preparation and commitment are required before baptism, obviously to ensure continued obedience to the covenants made, and to help people remain active in the Church. Baptism also changed from being “the” step to “the first” of other steps needed to reach the highest level.

So one question is if we could still baptize someone with little expectation for growth afterwards. Isn’t everyone commanded to be baptized, regardless of their intent to attend Church meetings, read the Scriptures daily, pay tithing or accept a calling? In the background is, moreover, the desire of missionaries to baptize quickly, even if there is uncertainty that the candidate fully understands the expectations or is really ready to comply. But if we baptize in such a way, do we not endanger the convert’s future because baptism entails sacred covenants?

Another related aspect is the time we require for someone to be ready for baptism. We still baptize rather quickly (even a few weeks can be viewed as relatively quick), but next require a high level of commitment to be in good standing (Word of Wisdom, tithing, Sabbath observance, attendance, callings…). Compare this to the Catholic Church, where a minimum of one year of serious preparation is required before an adult can be baptized, but next the expectations are rather low compared to ours and there is virtually no control. No tithing, no Word of Wisdom, no mission, no Sabbath observance the way we understand it, etc.

Through this topic we would like to better understand changing traditions related to the why and when of baptism, as they apply to changing circumstances and needs. We welcome your thoughtful and, if possible, documented comments.

40 comments for “The why and when of baptism

  1. Doug
    May 15, 2006 at 2:42 am

    I assume you’re speaking about adult converts, but I’m interested in learning from others if and how these standards that Wilfried outlines are applicable to eight-year-olds as well.

  2. Wilfried
    May 15, 2006 at 3:29 am

    Interesting question, Doug. But that would be another discussion which we could reserve for another time. Let’s concentrate on this thread on “mission conversion”, so, yes, mainly adults. Also, to clarify, I’m not outlining standards in one or the other direction. I just happen to pass on a topic for discussion!

  3. Mark Butler (II)
    May 15, 2006 at 4:13 am

    The most tragic experience I had on my mission was when we had an investigator of somewhat limited mental ability who was refused baptism because it was deemed unnecessary. He was crushed.

  4. Mark Pickering
    May 15, 2006 at 9:37 am

    I favor the Catholic approach, but the most common objection is that without the Gift of the Holy Ghost one is handicapped in fully understanding the Gospel. I’m not quite sure what to make of that, since we assume that the non-Gift of the Holy Ghost will help willing investigators along until they receive the Gift. In reality, of course, we are only told “receive the Holy Ghost,” and many don’t receive Him for many years, if at all. So, I’m all for the catechism.

  5. May 15, 2006 at 10:18 am

    I think that when we compare baptism prep in the early church days to baptism prep now, we should consider that 150 years ago most of the people being baptized were already aware of basic Christian principles and were converting largely based on doctrinal issues. Today’s converts come from backgrounds where many of them think Jesus Christ’s middle initial is H and have never studied a religion of any kind, or have studied non-Christian as well as Christian religion.

    Another change that has come about in the last 150 years is that people no longer attach the value they used to attach to a person’s word of honor. This makes it necessary to ascertain whether a person is really changed, or just says they have.

  6. May 15, 2006 at 11:25 am

    Doug: I assume you’re speaking about adult converts, but I’m interested in learning from others if and how these standards that Wilfried outlines are applicable to eight-year-olds as well.

    Wilfried: But that would be another discussion which we could reserve for another time. Let’s concentrate on this thread on “mission conversion�, so, yes, mainly adults.

    A wise mission president once instructed me with the following question and answer: “How much knowledge does an investigator have to have before they can be baptized? As much as an eight-year-old primary child preparing to receive their own baptism.”

    I found this to be a pretty good rule of thumb. The truths we must accept in order to be willing to accept baptism are simple, plain, and easy to understand. So easy, in fact, that an eight-year old child can understand them and implement them in her life.

    While we do ask investigators to commit to uphold the commandments after baptism, ultimately we also have little control over whether they will or not fully “convert” to the daily walk of Mormonism. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the concepts of faith in the Lord and repentance.

  7. Last Lemming
    May 15, 2006 at 11:27 am

    I’m for baptizing anybody who is repentant. I would even lay hands on their head and say “Receive the Holy Ghost.” But I would not confirm them members of the Church until they can demonstrate an understanding of the basic doctrines and a willingness to obey the commandments.

    Several years ago when I was secretary of the Stake Mission, the instruction came down from Salt Lake not to confirm adult converts immediately, so as to conform to D&C 20:68

    The duty of the members after they are received by baptism.—The elders or priests are to have a sufficient time to expound all things concerning the church of Christ to their understanding, previous to their partaking of the sacrament and being confirmed by the laying on of the hands of the elders, so that all things may be done in order.

    This was interpreted to mean one week, during which time at least one new member lesson would be taught. My impression now is that the instruction (if it even stills stands) is interpreted to mean 24 hours, with no requirement that anything be taught. If it were up to me, I would require as much time as needed to cover all of the new member lessons.

  8. Kevin Barney
    May 15, 2006 at 11:39 am

    When I went on my mission to Colorado in the late seventies, we were all very strongly acculturated to favor quick baptism. This started in the old mission home in SLC, and accelerated in the mission field itself. My first mission president was a devotee of the Hartman Rector school of missionary work.

    The missionaries in my mission had a macho, cowboy culture, where the quicker you baptized, the better. There were even instances of baptisms being done late at night in a swimming pool the first day of teaching. In my mission, all that mattered was the baptism numbers. Nothing else counted.

    On one occasion, we baptized a woman who was living with a man. The ZLs had consulted the mission office, and they determined that they would be deemed to be in a common law marriage under Colorado law, so they approved the baptism. The local church leaders didn’t see it that way, and were absolutely furious. We had to both be transferred out of that ward immediately.

    Back then, we were basically at war with the wards and stakes. We wanted big baptism numbers, and they wanted converts with an actual commitment to the gospel.

    These days, based on my own mission experiences and the fact that I am now on the ward/stake side of the divide, I would favor more preparation for baptism rather than less. Not a year, necessarily, but at least a few weeks at a minimum, including actual church attendance.

  9. May 15, 2006 at 11:58 am

    I think it is interesting that we baptize for the dead for any name we find in genealogy research without knowing the least bit about their disposition in the spirit world. D&C section 20 gives some requirements from the Lord in a couple of spots. My view is that we currently baptize anybody who comes to church twice and can stop smoking for a week. I don’t know how we could get much more lax in the requirements.

    It seems a major reason for wanting others to prepare more for baptism is to make our lives easier in terms of home teaching, attendance numbers, etc. To help alleviate our guilt in things that perhaps we could have done to help retain the new converts. Better retention – less guilt – raise baptism requirements.

  10. May 15, 2006 at 3:24 pm

    Wilfried, Eric, and Kevin all have linked our views of baptism with post-baptismal expectations, and I think this is an important point to highlight. Unlike Eric, I don’t think this is all about guilt. For me it’s more about capacity. I have spent a material chunk of my adult life tracking down inactive members (most of whom are not terribly excited when I find them), and the prospect of adding to that pool is not very appealing. If we felt that baptism were intrinsically valuable — and not merely a gateway to the path of salvation — then I would be in favor of baptizing more readily, then worrying less about post-baptismal activity.

  11. Paul Mouritsen
    May 15, 2006 at 7:38 pm

    “I assume you’re speaking about adult converts, but I’m interested in learning from others if and how these standards that Wilfried outlines are applicable to eight-year-olds as well.”

    Too often, eight year olds with inactive parents are baptized, usually at the request of the grandparents, then never seen in church again. It would seem to me that children of record should not be baptized unless their parents are firmly committed to teaching them the gospel and raising them in the church. Doesn’t the Roman Catholic Church require that responsible adults stand in as godparents and promise that the child will be raised in the faith?

    We have many elderly adults in our ward who have not been to church since the day they were baptized some 50 or 60 years ago. Their grandparents were faithful members, their parents had fallen into inactivity, and the children never even know what the church is about.

    With regard to converts, the Seventh-day Adventists seem to have a sensible policy. Like us, they baptize converts quickly, but unlike us, they drop from the rolls those who do not keep their commitments. They excommunicate people for offenses like neglecting to attend public worship, smoking, or working on the sabbath. Perhaps that is why their membership is increasing by about a million people a year. They devote their energy to seeking new converts instead of trying to “activate” the hopelessly alienated and indifferent.

  12. May 15, 2006 at 8:15 pm

    Re #11: Although the parable of the sower does seem to speak to the probability that many who are baptized will fall away, I seem to remember a couple of other well-known parables indicating that seeking after those who are lost is fairly important. :)

    I tend to feel that whatever policy the Brethren are recommending at the time (in terms of qualifications for baptism) is probably the best one for me to follow. That policy has changed over the years, and will probably continue to change. IMO, If we are acting within the stated policy, whether as a full-time missionary or a ward missionary or mission leader, AND if we are also seeking the guidance of the Spirit in the way we implement that policy (always having our concern be about souls, not numbers) we will probably be in harmony with the Lord’s will.

  13. El Jefe
    May 15, 2006 at 9:22 pm

    Sometimes we seem slaves to percentages. But not a single percentage point will enter the celestial kingdom. Only souls will enter.

    1. Is there a better chance of someone making it to the celestial kingdom if they are in the Church or out of it? Debatable, but provided they have had a emotional/spiritual change of heart, I believe the chances are better if that change of heart is followed by an ordinance; even though a percentage of those who have the ordinance will lose their way.

    2. Would you rather baptize 100 and have 100 make it to the celestial kingdom, or baptize 1,000 and have 200 make it to the celestial kingdom? See the introductory statement.

    3. Is the Holy Ghost more apt to help us before baptism, or after baptism.

    4. Do missionaries make mistakes? Yes. Have some missions in the past been too numbers oriented? Yes. But there are members all over the world who were baptized by uninspired programs, who thank the Lord that the missionaries brought them into the Church.

    This is not a defense of doing stupid things. But if I have to lean any way, I would lean toward baptizing more, rather than less.

  14. briant
    May 15, 2006 at 9:25 pm

    I served in Russia from 98-2000 and our mission policy on baptism included the requirement that investigators live the word of wisdom 30 days and come to church that month too. This was not strictly followed in all cases. Most of the time it simply served to filter out eternal investigators, but I think it was more effective as far as retention is concerned.

    In my ward mission stateside, I am always surprised at how fast the missionaries still baptize people. One of my friends investigated the church, and I had to talk to the missionaries about giving her room to make the decision, gain a testimony, and transition into Mormon life. They still pushed her, but I was there to say “why don’t we do it 3 weeks later on this date…” much to the missionaries dismay. This caused me to stop and think: was I going against the Lord’s will because I told the missionaries to hold off? I still don’t know the answer to this question, but my friend got baptized and is still active in the church. On the other hand, two women came to church for the first time the same time my friend came for her first time and they were baptized a month before her. They never came to church again after receiving the Holy Ghost (did the Church change its policy back to the old way, because they got the Holy Ghost the day after). Perhaps the question isn’t how long should we wait because it will be different for everyone. In short, I have no answers, just more questions.

  15. Ann
    May 15, 2006 at 9:51 pm

    I really like Kevin’s idea of baptizing and conferring the gift, but withholding membership until a membership commitment is realistic. The problem with baptism and membership going hand in hand is that it’s so easy to get in and so hard to get out, often without any real understanding of what the consequences are for either action, and imposing enormous burdens on the active members in the process.

  16. Sally
    May 15, 2006 at 10:19 pm

    When I was primary president, the missionaries gave the discussions and baptized a 10 year old girl at the request of her member but inactive parents. She and they never came to church before or after the baptism. I felt that without demonstrating a desire to live the gospel and knowing her parents would not encourage it, that all we were doing was putting her under condemnation because she would not be keeping covenants that she made. It is hard to know – maybe in future years, she may find her way back, knowing that she is a member. But I worry about placing people under the obligation of covenants that they are not ready to live.

  17. Kevin Barney
    May 15, 2006 at 11:27 pm

    We act as if baptizing anyone and everyone just to goose the numbers and make our mission or ward or whatever look good to the powers that be, enabling us to crow to the media about how fast we’re growing, is a costless transaction. But it’s not. When we baptize people with very little preparation, who are therefore at a high risk of quickly falling through the cracks, we are continuing to increase the burdens on an already heavily burdened active membership. I feel this keenly, since I live in a very small ward that struggles to find the bodies to fill significant callings (I have three myself).

    As I get older, I find that I have rapidly decreasing tolerance for attempts to send me on a guilt trip for not visiting yet another family who has already made it perfectly clear that they don’t want to be visited, they don’t self-identify as Mormons and they don’t want anything to do with me. Guilt can be an effective tool when used in moderate doses, but we have a tendency to go to that well way too often, in my view. If I ever leave the Church, and I freely ackowledge that that could happen one day, it won’t be over scripture or history or doctrine (I already know where all of those bodies are buried). It will be some straw that an overzealous leadership tries to place on my already burdened back.

    My feeling is that simply adding names to the baptism rolls without a corresponding commitment to the gospel weakens the Church, not strengthens it. And I’m not convinced that simply baptizing people without more is really doing them any favors, either.

  18. It's Not Me
    May 16, 2006 at 12:41 am

    Sally #16: “I worry about placing people under the obligation of covenants that they are not ready to live.”

    I agree completely. I also notice this with people who are pushed to get to the temple to be sealed when they are not ready to live the temple covenants. I don’t know that we’re doing them any favors.

  19. May 16, 2006 at 2:01 am

    Crossposted from my comment at Zelophehad’s Daughters

    When I received a testimony of the truthfullness of Book of Mormon and of Joseph Smith’s first vision, I didn’t care what the church taught or believed. I was committed to doing whatever it took, and believing whatever God’s official church officially taught. I didn’t care what the doctines were or what the history was.

    I requested baptism before the first lesson.

    I realize that’s not the path that most people take. But once a person has a testimony of: 1) God and Jesus Christ, 2) The Book of Mormon, 3) Joseph Smith; and if they are committed to keeping the commandments, then they are ready for baptism.

    Yes, there are lots of people who are not ready for baptism after 6 lessons and 2 Sundays. However, if they have a testimony borne of the Holy Ghost, and they realize it, and are committed, then 6 lessons and 2 Sundays are sufficient.


    I joined the church in 1982 at age 24, went on a mission in 1984-86. In 1987 I went inactive, and I requested name-removal in 1991. I came back to church in 2002. I haven’t been re-baptized yet, but I look forward to it.

    I’ve learned that there is a lot one can still do as a non-member participant in the church. One can still learn a lot. One can be of service under the aegis of friend-helping-friend, or neighbor-helping-neighbor. One doesn’t need an official calling to be a friend or a neighbor. All public meetings, classes and conferences are open to non-members, investigators and ex-members. Leadership meetings are pretty much the only things closed. Even stake meetings that are for the general body of priesthood holders are open to the public, female members can attend, and missionaries could take investigators. But priesthood leadership meetings are not open to the public, or the general membership.

    There is much one can learn. One may not have the Gift-of-the-Holy-Ghost, but one can still receive revelation through the Light of Christ. And the prophets and apostles have taught that flashes of inspiration, like lightning in the night, can illuminate sincere seekers, until they get the bright constant daylight of the Gift-of-the-Holy-Ghost.

    I think a common occurance related to this thread is that investigators get “dumped” if they don’t commit to baptism. When an investigator declines to be baptized, depending on their reasons and their beliefs, I think they should be encouraged to attend and participate. “Okay, but even if you don’t get baptized, we’d love to see you on Sundays whenever you can make it, and you’re always welcome at the ward functions, picnics, singles family-home-evening, Institute, Seminary, dances, etc.”

    Or, “You still want to smoke and drink and live with your girlfriend?
    Well, we’re not going to stop you from those things. And you can still attend our sunday meetings and other events.” D&C 46:3-6 is the scripture that covers that.

  20. Wilfried
    May 16, 2006 at 2:27 am

    Thank you all for valuable comments, emphasizing facets of the topic. I notice that a main thread is our realization of responsibility and commitment that comes with baptism.

    I tried to avoid a discussion of the situation of 8-year olds as such, but A Nonny Mouse (6) drew the attention to a basic aspect of “understanding the Gospel” by quoting a mission president: “How much knowledge does an investigator have to have before they can be baptized? As much as an eight-year-old primary child preparing to receive their own baptism.â€? Without going into the detail of the situation of the 8-year old (still a separate discussion I think), the comparison is interesting.

    Basically, as far as “understanding” is concerned, the limited knowledge may be sufficient and somewhat identical for a child and an adult, but adult converts face a context which is totally different from 8-year olds. In the case of a child, parents are the guardians and in most cases (not all, I know, cf. comment 11 by Paul) will closely nurture the child further in the Church and the Gospel. Adult converts on the other hand often face a rather hostile environment, familial and social, and their conversion entails sometimes serious breaches with their traditions (especially in certain mission fields). The challenges are going to be quite different, hence a different perspective on preparation in order to ensure the necessary commitment afterwards. At the same time, when we think of timing, Mormon children, in normal circumstances, are being “prepared” for several years towards baptism. That stands in stark contrast with our usual timing for adult converts.

  21. May 16, 2006 at 3:49 am

    Wilfried, I certainly see what you mean about the serious cultural challenges facing adult converts, particularly in certain areas of the world. However, many converts in the early days of the restoration faced similar challenges, and yet they were often baptized very soon after meeting the missionaries. I tend to agree with Bookslinger that quite often “once a person has a testimony of: 1) God and Jesus Christ, 2) The Book of Mormon, 3) Joseph Smith; and if they are committed to keeping the commandments, then they are ready for baptism.�

    Kevin (#17), I don’t think that anyone is advocating “baptizing anyone and everyone just to goose the numbers and make our mission or ward or whatever look good to the powers that be, enabling us to crow to the media about how fast we’re growing.”

    And maybe if we as members and leaders were better at nurturing and befriending new converts, giving them “responsibilities” commensurate with their abilities, and then mentoring them as they grow in ability and confidence, no one would need to be burdened with multiple callings. The Brethren have counseled leaders to be adaptable, and to scale back programs in small wards and branches so members need only serve in one calling (in addition to that of home or visiting teacher). Another consequence of following this policy might be that more new members would feel needed (but not overwhelmed), and thus more likely remain active.

  22. Wilfried
    May 16, 2006 at 8:12 am

    Excellent remarks, RoAnn. To nuance further, it is true, on the one hand, that “many converts in the early days of the restoration faced similar challenges, and yet they were often baptized very soon after meeting the missionaries.” So, in principle, why not continue this approach today? — as suggested as one of the initial questions in the post and sustained in various comments.

    On the other hand, the turnover to inactivity (or even anti-activity) was probably comparable with the situation today. The young Church also faced its challenges of converts turning away or turning against Joseph Smith.

    Next, comparing then and now, there is the major difference with the Gathering: joining the Saints in “an own Mormon region” no doubt created a different momentum for those who remained active. Nowadays, converts are encouraged to remain in their home countries, where the challenges of remaining active in small branches and wards, in an often hostile environment, are peculiar. Previous comments have pointed at the burden it makes for those who remain active: not one lost sheep with 99 others safe, but the majority of the sheep on the loose with only a few to find them and care for them (in spite of their frequent unwilligness to be cared for). All this contributes to a different evaluation of the best timing before baptism: how do we ensure better retention, a major concern for the Church today.

    A basic question remains: do we baptize “only” as proof of repentance and gateway to salvation, regardless of what follows in terms of Church expectations, or also and mainly as the first step on a long and arduous road upon which ultimate salvation depends. If the latter, longer preparation before baptism also seems justified. In that sense, I concur with the remarks by Kevin (17), though of course baptizing “just for numbers” is not Church policy as such. But it happens with young missionaries so eager to baptize, thus probably compounding the problem of retention.

  23. claire
    May 16, 2006 at 11:53 am

    Reigning in missionaries is such a depressing job; they are so young, and full of energy for ‘the work,’ and they don’t realize that the ward leaders don’t perform their callings as a full time job like they do. I’m sorry to say I usually cringe to hear that a baptism is scheduled (ours are Sunday morning with confirmations an hour later in Sacrament meeting) because more likely than not, it’s bound to be another soon-faceless name on the rolls of ‘less actives’ in our ward (what a funny term; most never qualify as actually ‘active’ in the first place). I’m with Last Lemming and Kevin on this one: baptize whoever feels they have gained a testimony, but only confirm those who really understand what is involved with being a member of the church.

  24. Mike
    May 16, 2006 at 3:43 pm

    Since the single most important and most emphasized activity in my ward is home & visiting teaching…
    Since we already have dozens of names, far too many to ever visit, on the ward roster for each and every home and visiting teacher who actually goes…
    Since nearly everyone (and no one else) who has ever been baptized is mandated to become a home and/or visiting teaching assignment…

    I propose we not baptize (or at least confirm as suggested above) anyone until they demonstrate that they are going to home or visit teach. The only way to really find out is by giving them an assignment and seeing if they do it.

    Slogan: Baptize only home teachers and visiting teachers.

    Any other course of action is going to make the single most important activity of this ward worse.

  25. May 16, 2006 at 4:36 pm

    When I was a missionary district leader, and did baptism interviews, I remember declining two adults and one child.

    The first adult could never remember the word of wisdom. I think we had like three interviews. By the third time, I tried to make it so easy and asked “Are members of our church allowed to smoke and drink alcohol?” and he replied “I don’t know.” I wondered if he was playing a game, but I think he was just mentally deficient. There were no other church members in his family, and he had no friends in the church to take him under his wing. The missionaries were teaching correctly, but nothing ever stuck with him. I tried to be gentle, not saying he couldn’t get baptized, but that he needed to learn more before being baptized.

    The second adult, same district but different missionaries, could never express any kind of positive faith in the Book of Mormon or the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. The official mission guideline was to be able to sustain Joseph Smith and the current church president as prophets as a requirement for baptism.. It might have even been to have a _testimony_ of Joseph Smith being a prophet. She couldn’t or wouldn’t say “yes” to “Do you _think_ Joseph Smith was a prophet?” I used the verbs “creer” (to believe) and she couldn’t say yes, and then I repeated using the verb “pensar” (to think) and she couldn’t say yes. The best she could do was to say she wanted to find out. Since then, I’ve wavered back and forth about whether asking her to wait until she came to at least a small bit of faith before baptism.

    I’ve wondered whether she was playing a game telling her missionaries one thing, and me another. Or whether the two missionaries who taught her didn’t realize that at least some particle of “I think” or the “I believe” kind of faith had to be present prior to baptism. I don’t know if it was her idea or their idea that faith was not necessary for baptism.

    The third person, in another area with other missionaries in the district was a child between 8 and 10. In her case, the missionaries just hadn’t taught her anything. It was a pure “weenie-bap.” Her parents were not members, but I think her older brother was a member and active. When I asked one of the missionaries why they didn’t even try to teach her anything, one said “that’s what church is for.” He was an elder who showed up at the MTC not knowing anything about the gospel, having never cracked the Book of Mormon, and not knowing what Mormons believe. His parents had abdicated responsibility for teaching him the gospel to the church (but he never did learn anyway), and so for him, convert children were to learn the gospel in primary, not in missionary lessons. It wasn’t just a matter of “send him on a mission to get a testimony”, it was “send him on a mission and hope he learns the gospel”. I don’t think he ever did. I met his parents at the end of his mission, and I finally understood how he got his attitude.

    At times I’ve wavered, wondering if I did the right things in those 3 cases. But today I’m confident that I did. Maybe I could have done more to help the missionaries who taught them to better _prepare_ those people. But I’m confident that at the times of those interviews, they were not ready for baptism.

    It must be really hard on a bishop who interviews 8 year olds in those cases where the parents didn’t teach them anything. If the bishop declines the kid for baptism, the kid gets hurt and the parents get offended. As long as the parents are active, I can understand a bishop rubber-stamping an 8 year old’s baptism even when he/she really isn’t prepared. And you can’t prepare someone for baptism in a 10 to 30 minute interview. I think a good bishop and his counselors would start talking to children when they are 7, 7-1/2, and a month prior their 8th birthday. And use those as guidelines to help the child’s parents and teachers prepare them.

  26. Mike
    May 16, 2006 at 5:11 pm

    About 8 years ago I was teaching a lesson on missionary work in the EQ when I had a flash of light come into my mind. I made up this parable on the spot in front of the class. It might have just been the result of some unusually large spit wads hitting me in the back of the head, I don’t know.

    Once upon a time there were two wards, the Eureka ward and the Pokey ward. Both wards had 200 members and all were active (for the purposes of making the parable simple). The Eureka ward baptized 100 new members every year for 10 years. They now have 1200 members. But their retention was about 10%. So they had 200 old members, 100 new members and 900 inactive members. The Pokey ward only baptized on average 10 new members every year for the same 10 years. And their retention was around 50%. So they now have 200 old members, 50 new members and 50 inactives.

    The question is in which ward would you rather live? The Eureka ward is stronger with 300 active members instead of 250 active members in the Pokey ward. But look at each teacher in the Eureka ward, they have maybe a dozen kids in their class but only 3 who actually attend. They feel obligated to spend so much of their energy trying to reach some of the kids who never come that they neglect preparing excellent lessons (like those of Jim and Julie). Look at the home teaching assignments: 4 to 1 until you realize that you go as companions so now its 8 to 1. And half or more are women so it goes to 16 to 1 . And then only half of those who should go actually agree to go, so it goes to 32 to 1 and so forth.

    The Pokey ward has a much more favorable ratio in every area. The teacher in the Pokey ward with a smaller class has time for a better lesson and is better able to focus on active students and the one or two inactive kids. Even if retention is way under 50% , the problems are much less. More of the members of the Pokey ward are able to get past the check list approach to living the gospel and are better able to strive for excellence and the abundant life at church.

    And here is the kicker. David O McKay said that “every member is a missionary.” He did not say that they should be a good missionary, which is what we usually mean when we quote him. The Eureka ward is now in a community with 900 inactive members who are also missionaries in their own right. But they are probably not saying very many good things about the church and they are certainly not setting a good example and their actions shout louder than words. The Pokey ward in contrast only has 50 negative missionaries in their community. (Except when everybody starts to move around. Then some of the Eureka inactives move into the Pokey ward and turn many people against the church and the Pokey ward may not even know they are there. I added this twist in later.)

    Which ward is in a better position for sustainable growth? Which ward is going to have the leadership crisis? Which ward is going to have the boring lessons and the stagnation?

    Now Bro. Faraday raised his hand and pointed out that it is possible to have a ward grow from 200 to 1200 and still have 90% retention. We will call this the Faraday ward which was easily split into 3 or 4 wards. They resemble the Pokey ward by the numbers. And Bro. Krankeydorf mentioned that he had lived in a ward of about 200 people with few conversions and it dwindled into a branch of only 30-50 active members over 10 years. So we will call it the Krankeydorf branch.

    I realized that the Eureka ward was close to what had actually happened in my ward from about 1985 to 1995. The Pokey ward was some idealized imagination of how I assumed the church to have grown in the remote good old days, before “Lengthen Your Stride” came along. The Faraday ward is what we all hope for and what we imagine when we talk about missionary work and what articles in the Ensign describe. But in my experience it is rarely observed in the mission field. The Krankeydorf ward is where I hope my ward is not going. But I could be wrong; since the hay day of high baptisms seems to have passed, the cleaning out of the records stage is largely complete with the ward roster falling from over 1000 to under 400 in the last few years and we are wallowing in mediocracy, stagnation and burn-out.

    I really don’t think the Eureka ward is sustainable. Rapid or even slow growth is meaningless and counter-productive if retention is not substantial. For me this was a sort of revelation. Why the growth of the church has stalled, at least as far as the rest of the church resembles my ward.

    How does a Eureka ward morph into a Pokey ward, assuming that that is a better position? I think we spend too much time in Eureka wards imagining and hoping that they are like the Faraday ward. And trying without success to make them into Faraday wards. I tell you what we have done in the past has not worked. No amount of pretending or hype makes the Eureka ward into a Faraday ward. I can see easily how the Eureka ward turns into a Krankeydorf ward when the boom in conversions busts and it may not be easy to prevent.

    How to achieve 50% retention or even 99% retention? That is a difficult question. I think the Pokey ward is far more likely to discover how than the Eureka ward. If it is not achieveable, because of the principle of free agency or whatever the reason, the smaller Pokey ward is still better off.

    My contention is that we should not baptize people unless or until there is a greater than 50% chance of keeping them active in the long run. It is not fair to them and it destroys the wards that they leave.

  27. Hyrum
    May 16, 2006 at 5:42 pm

    Why is confirmation such a big deal? They need us with or without us formally declaring them members of the Church.

  28. May 16, 2006 at 7:08 pm

    Wilfried (#22), I definitely agree that the Gathering to Zion created a different momentum for the actives, many of whom left their families and their culture to join other LDS in America; and that among those who stayed in their culture, there were many who “disappeared.�

    As you (and others here on T&S) probably know from my previous comments, I have lived in several countries in the last forty years. I have also attended a lot of wards in the U.S. as we have visited relatives and friends scattered around the country. Those wards could be generally divided into two camps, regarding their attitude toward missionary work and retention: 1) enthusiastic, supportive, involved; or 2) feeling sort of like Kevin (#17), Claire (#23) and Mike (#24 & #26) seem to feel–discouraged, burdened, unenthusiastic. IMO, it is the attitude of the bishop and other ward leadership that can change the ward from a negative, to a positive attitude.

    Mike, that was a very interesting parable (#26), and after reading some of your previous comments, I can see why you draw the conclusions you do. But I think there is an alternative scenario to ones you described so vividly.

    May I now give an example of how I saw dramatic changes come to a ward which had fallen into the doldrums after a period of high baptisms and low retention? That ward had eventually dropped into low baptisms and falling attendance (perhaps going from Eureka to Krankeydorf in Mike’s terms).

    How did it change? Our new bishop was firmly committed to both missionary work and retention.

    We welcomed investigators with open arms. They were usually baptized in a relatively short time after receiving the lessons, although some came out to meetings for several months prior to baptism. Baptismal services were usually held after church on Sundays, and the room was always full to overflowing. Auxiliary leaders, as well as the bishop, were there to welcome the new converts, and were committed to help with their fellowshipping. Converts were usually given some sort of responsibility almost immediately. The newly baptized were working with the missionaries to introduce the gospel to their friends. Before I moved away, I asked our bishop about retention and learned that of the 30+ who had joined in the two years of that bishop’s tenure, all but one were still active (and he was working personally with that one). Even though several had since moved to other wards, he had apparently kept in touch with them enough to know that they were still attending.

    Due to one bishop’s leadership, our whole ward became both missionary-minded and revitalized in our own commitment to the Gospel! Yes, we still had hundreds of “lost” from earlier years, but the mindset of the ward leaders was optimistic, not despairing. Many of those less active were returning as the missionaries worked with their non-member relatives. In that ward, the focus was on those who were interested in finding and living the truth of the Gospel now, and that kept the ward enthusiastic and dynamic, even as members and leaders reached out positively, but in a measured way (in wisdom and order) to find and help bring back those who had been less active for a long time.

  29. May 16, 2006 at 10:31 pm


    Having just taught the Book of Joshua in Sunday School, a few relevant verses stand out. In the final chapter of the book (Ch 24), Joshua delivers his famous “choose ye this day” speech. The people are very excited (think of the Nephites reaction to King Benjamin’s similar words) to accept the covenant (Joshua 24:16-17). How does Joshua respond? Read verses 19-20.

  30. May 16, 2006 at 11:09 pm

    One added benefit of the year-long commitment required by the Catholics — there’s a chance for the new members to grow deep and meaningful relationships with both other new members and long term members. One of my friends runs the classes for her parish “investigators” and she seems to find it deeply rewarding; I don’t see her abandoning her new members once they’ve taken Communion and are technically out of her hands. They’re really friends with one another, you know? I’m not sure how to be friends with the guy who just got baptized; unless he has a son or daughter turning 8 this year, in which case there’s a 50/50 chance he’ll have a kid in my CTR-8 class… and then I’ll still mostly know the kid, and not the parent. If I’m not paying close attention and taking notes in Sacrament, there’s a decent chance I’ll never have a chance to know that new member’s name, even (though now that I’m a YSA rep, I’ll get his record forwarded to me… provided he’s single and under 30!) The missionaries can’t be his friend, and I bet most of the rest of the ward is in a position like mine. Who exactly is going to help him learn how to be a Mormon, and fit into the ward?

    Also, just because there’s no temple recommend interview to go to, doesn’t mean Catholics don’t have things to live up to. If they stop showing up to Mass, going to confession, etc., they’re called “lapsed.” And there’s quite a lot of “this is how you ought to be living your life” stuff in what they hear on Sunday, to say nothing of the Catholic schools (which, at least in my area, make up a huge part of many Catholics’ lives.)

    Saying that the Catholics don’t have a lot of expectations for their congregants is kind of like saying that other churches don’t focus on service the way we do (heard a few weeks ago in FHE — next time it’s my turn to do the lesson, I’m doing Comparative Religion.) If you’d fit the definition of an “active” Catholic (as parallel to an “active” Mormon) you’re already 75% of the way from “secular American” to “Mormon” lifestyle (and the biggest differences would be in the temple ordinances and the Word of Wisdom, which by the way a hearty percentage of our own members don’t live up to.)

  31. Wilfried
    May 17, 2006 at 1:04 am

    It is interesting to see how the thread, firstly meant as a doctrinal question on the deeper meaning of baptism, moved to focus almost exclusively on the second aspect, timing, and from there to our responsibility to help keep converts active. Thank you all for great comments, anecdotes, comparisons and calculations.

    A better working relation between young, enthused, full-time, baptism-eager missionaries who come and go on the one hand, and concerned local leaders, often overburned with responsibilities who will have to carry the responsibility over the converts for many many years, is indeed a topic at the heart of the whole process. Thanks, Claire (23), Mike (24), Bookslinger (25) for your thoughts on this.

    Mike (26), your parable makes an interesting comparison, and I can recognize in the wards you describe the tendencies of units I have known over the years. Of course, in reality wards are often a mixture of tendencies, with trends shifting over the years. But we all know that retention, as indicated in General Conference talks, is of high concern for the Brethern.

    Thanks, RoAnn (28) for that positive contribution on how a bishop can make such a great change to a ward. It proves the importance of simple dedication and good sense. The Church is a place to learn to cope with challenges. Giving in to discouragement will not get us to improve things. I like your expression to work “in a measured way (in wisdom and order)”.

    Sarah (30), I appreciate your clarification on Catholic converts (I guess you speak from a situation in the U.S.). I always find it interesting to hear about Catholicism elsewhere, for the situation in Belgium does not seem comparable, with Catholic churches almost empty and callings of new priests to a standstill. I don’t think Catholics make adult converts around here. But I recognize the situation is different elsewhere.

  32. May 17, 2006 at 1:09 am

    Booksling mentioned declining a man who he thought might be ‘mentally deficient’ the opportunity to be baptised. When you consider issues of agency, accountability and expectation of growth as requirements for baptism for persons with intellectual disability, the water gets even murkier. How important is a simple desire to be baptized or a testimony of basic gospel truths?

    Persons with significant intellectual disabilities are often excused from baptism in mortality and placed in the same category of children under the age of 8. However, unlike children under the age of 8, persons with disabilities are able to be baptized by proxy after they are dead. Obviously there is a continuum of intellectual disability, but does intellectual disability directly have anything to do with the requirements for baptism- or is intellectual ability only related as a factor in becoming ‘accountable’?

  33. Tracy Hall
    May 17, 2006 at 4:30 pm

    Mike wrote (#24)

    >Slogan: Baptize only home teachers and visiting teachers!

    Hear, Hear! Being a faithful home teacher or visiting teacher is surely a true measure of discipleship. This suggestion would really revolutionize the Church!

    We have a brother in our ward who seldom comes to church, but he is junior companion to three different home teachers, primarily because he’s so friendly and willing. When we suggested that we cut back on his “burden,” he objected. I’d eagerly trade a couple more like him for some brethren who come to church and “accept” home teaching calls but don’t fulfil them.

  34. Sara Steed
    May 17, 2006 at 6:43 pm

    I think a lot of people are forgetting (or perhaps just not touching upon) the fact that baptism IS the initiation into Christ’s Church. If investigators had to have a perfect testimony–essentially be the *ideal* member–how many members would that disqualify?

    Alma says it best in Alma 32:21-22, 27 “And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true. And now, behold, I say unto you, and I would that ye should remember, that God is merciful unto all who believe on his name; therefore he desireth, in the first place, that ye should believe, yea, even on his word […] But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.”

    And so far as the Gift of the Holy Ghost goes–confirmation…the Gift of the Holy Ghost is a teacher and a purifying agent, and the Power of the Holy Ghost does not do that. I’m sorry, but I don’t think that blessing should be denied to those who have been baptized. And I think that when we start to put time restrictions, etc. on investigators–whether it be too little or too much–that we stray into the philosophies of men. We know the crucial steps already: 1) Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, 2) Repentance, 3) Baptism by Immersion, 4) the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the Laying on of Hands. After that, we know that a new member has to wait at least a year before going through the temple. Members also know that new members should get a calling, be fellowshipped, etc. I think those requirements are enough, and after that it’s discussing how converted someone is, which no one but Christ can judge (thank goodness!).

  35. Razorfish
    May 17, 2006 at 8:59 pm

    My opinions on this topic have evolved over the years. I can remember as a missionary where the Zone activity was to find, contact, teach and baptize someone on the same day. The Zone Leaders found someone who fit the criteria (somewhat mentally impaired and not able to make independent judgements). The individual was baptized same day and the baptisimal paperwork was slid underneath the Bishop’s office. Obviously an eggregious example that goes way over the top and likely quite unusual and rare.

    But to me it highlights some key issues. If we are truly serious in our Church about improving retention, we have to start upstream and begin with “improving baptisms.” That is a longer investigation and learning phase where the individual attends Church for weeks or months, becomes integrated into the ward, develops new friends and social support networks, and is ready to be assimilated into the body of Christ. As a Church we’ve started this process by “raising the bar on missionaries”, but we should likewise raise the bar on our converts and investigators. Not to bar anyone from the straight and narrow path, but rather to make sure they will be nurtured and cared for and retained. Everyone loses when a new convert goes inactive and later spiritually dead in the Church. We do a new convert a disservice when we statistically know they will more than likely fail within 1 year and more likely be inactive vs active.

    We purposely have new members wait 1 year or more to attend the temple, why not some requirement to be baptized. Both covenants are serious and all involved will be worse off if they once took upon them covenants only to later renounce them.

    I’ve become conditioned to not feel guilt from “the Ward Mission Leader” or garden variety missionary lesson that compels us to share the gospel. Until there is an equal emphasis at the local level of retention and missionary work, we will never solve this retention problem Church-wide. Baptism and retention activitys are inextricably linked together. Unless the two are thoughtfully meshed and coordinated together, you will never overcome the root cause of retention problems.

    Local resources are strained under an avalanche of names and ward rosters nobody has heard or has the resources to seek out and find.

  36. Mike
    May 18, 2006 at 11:59 am

    I have another thought about retention. I will use another parable to illustrate it. The Parable of Carrots and Coca Cola.

    Notice that not many advertisements appear on TV or anywhere else promoting carrots. Carrots are a wholesome nutritious food and they sell themselves. I am told they are harder to grow than many other vegetables and so those who figure out how or else are blessed to live in climates where they grow well usually have a good market for them. We all know we should eat more of them. No one ever got fat or sick from eating too many carrots.

    Coca Cola is nothing more than ditch water from a city with a leaky sewer system and burned or badly processed brown sugar. They replaced the cocaine with caffeine a few years ago but they neglected to change the name to caffe cola. A favorite high school science experiment is to show that coke will dissolve various household items better than battery acid, bleach or oven cleaner. The first time you taste it, it tastes terrible. The love of Coca Cola is a developed taste. Coca Cola is promoted endlessly with great cleverness and it represents an image. The All American image. Beautiful girls, athletes, fast cars, cute little polar bears. To be fair, the same goes for Pepsi, although here in Atlanta where Coke originated we seldom hear much about Pepsi.

    Now, aside from cracks about colas, which kind of church do we have and which kind do we want? Do we have a Coca Cola kind of ward with little substance (theological ditch water and bad sugar) and too much promotion? Or do we have a carrot kind of ward; a community with real substance that sells itself?

    Do certain types of missionary work actually turn it from a carrot kind of ward into a coke kind of ward? If we spend too much time on missionary work, do we forget Christ, for example?

    I think that the RoAnn ward described in #28 went from a coke kind of ward that burned out to a RC cola kind of ward and then somehow rose up into a carrot kind of ward. I think the way they did it was that they made the ward better. If we focus on making the ward a friendly place with authentic religion and compassion, then we don’t have to go to the extremes that coke does to promote our religion.

  37. cchrissyy
    May 18, 2006 at 12:36 pm

    Sarah (30), my husband and I did the year-long Catholic conversion and lived as ultra-orthodox for a couple years. Despite weekly confession and weekly (at least!) mass attendance, we didn’t have a single friend at church and I don’t think they’ve noticed we’re missing yet!

  38. joseph tryon
    August 30, 2007 at 2:24 am

    I want to know: If an investigator completes all lessons from missionaries, is it true the zone leader or Bishop gives baptism and confirmation interviews and asks them: Have you ever participated in homosexuality ? Also asked: Are you an ex felon? Are you telling me both these type of people would need another interview by someone else? It is no one\’s business to know these things…I can see after baptism if a person does not live up to principles and commandments, but to ask this before baptism is not right. Maybe I read the article wrong…does the LDS church ask these questions before baptism and confirmation?

  39. Kaimi Wenger
    August 30, 2007 at 3:30 am

    Um, what article?

  40. joseph tryon
    August 30, 2007 at 3:56 am

    It was not an article within this site….It was an article on another website that stated this…thanks.

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