Retention and the Parable of the Sower

I do not have very many burrs under my saddle when it comes to the church, but in this case I would like to expose one in the hopes of removing it. It has to do with the retention of new converts.

I think it all started when I served as Ward Mission Leader and then Elder’s Quorum President consecutively. I believe that President Hinkley’s famous counsel on retention was made when I was a new Ward Mission Leader. My stake leaders at the time, whom I felt were over zealous in general, jumped on this counsel, and in their usual way were going to hold everyone with a stewardship regarding new converts to a high level of accountability in the three areas.

The three areas of need for a new convert are a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing by the word of God – according to President Hinkley. And if any new convert stopped coming to church it was assumed that the ball was dropped in one of these areas, and the ward in question was always at fault.
I do not dispute the wisdom of President Hinkley’s counsel in this area, but I do believe that it only addresses one side of the street. The side of the responsibility of long-time local members. But there is another side of the street – in fact I believe this may be a three-way street if you can imagine it. The other sides involve the missionaries, and the new converts themselves.

This months Ensign is completely devoted to new members of the church. There is an excellent article called something like ‘What Now?’, which I believe is on page 24. I don’t know for sure because I gave my copy to a recently inactive new convert in our ward. He and I have become friends of sorts, and I played pool with him last night. It is his favorite hobby. Anyhow, the article addresses the responsibilities of new members. Under the friendshipping section the author mentions that one of the best ways to have a friend is to be one, and suggests that the new member should reach out! Real friendships are always two way streets.

As I thought about resolving some of my issues with this my mind pondered the parable of the sower found in Matthew 13 among other places. Many have suggested that this parable is actually a parable about good soil. Most of you will be familiar with this parable so I won’t review the parable in detail now. But it seems that this parable may be the Saviors explanation regarding retention problems involving his own converts. His own explanation of the parable seems clearly to express that the staying power of a new convert is mainly determined by the quality of the soil. The soil being the convert themselves.

My desire here is to recommend that as local church leaders we don’t point fingers as much as we play blame-game guilt trips. We simply need to do what we reasonably can to help faithful, honest, and well prepared new converts make a difficult transition. I believe a lack of retention of poorly prepared converts who lack a deep commitment is nearly inevitable, and not necessarily evidence of an unfriendly, irresponsible, and uncharitable ward.

8 Responses to “Retention and the Parable of the Sower”

  1. 1 Rusty October 25, 2006 at 10:41 pm

    I agree with you Eric, all of us have our agency. There is no silver bullet to keeping converts in the Church. There are things that will help (Pres. Hinckley’s suggestions) but those won’t guarantee anything.

  2. 2 Eric Nielson October 26, 2006 at 6:56 am

    Thanks for letting me know Rusty.

  3. 3 John Mansfield October 26, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    I’ve thought about what that parable says about retention quite a bit, too. I asked a relative who has been a ward mission leader and a stake mission president why we never teach it, and he said members don’t excuses handed to them. It seems a valid concern, but I still think of that parable when we wonder many converts don’t stay with Christ’s church; that’s just the way His kingdom is.

  4. 4 Eric Nielson October 26, 2006 at 2:32 pm

    You are right John:

    I think there was a time – a few decades ago, when we did teach this. I think there was this feeling that those who join the church and stick with it are the ‘elect’. And now we seem to think that if anyone doesn’t join, or if they leave, it is all our fault.

  5. 5 Teancum October 27, 2006 at 12:36 pm

    I enjoy discussing this topic. I agree with the points you have made, but also have my own opinions regarding retention. Please allow me to bore you with them.

    The general leadership of the Church puts a lot of focus on doing when it comes to fellowshipping others, such as reaching out to new members, inactive members, and home teaching. I see no problem in this counsel.

    Where I think the problem occurs is when the general authorities communicate doing and than stake and local leaders communicate doing, with their added guilt trip of admonishing us to magnify our callings. Regurgitating counsel from general authorities is not going to work. Most members that attend Church watch General Conference. Simply repeating what our general leaders have said isn’t going to be an effective way in making sure counsel happens.

    What I believe stake and local leadership need to focus on is how to fellowship. Instead of telling us to home teach, tell us how to home teach. Instead of telling us we need to reach out to new members, tell us how to reach out to new members. The general authorities can’t always give this assistance because every ward and stake is going to be different and have their own needs. I believe the responsibility to show members how to accomplish the goals set by the general authorities lies on the local leadership.

    There are many members in the Church that simply don’t know how to reach out and be friends to others. I have noticed in the Church (outside of Utah at least) that members keep to themselves more than any other Church I have attended. There are a select few wards that have opened themselves up and accept others, and have better retention numbers, but I would say the majority of wards in the Church could be considered “cold.”

    Local leaders need to work toward developing more socially nourishing stakes and wards. Yes, the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ is important, and should be the motivation behind us being active in the Church, but everyone wants to go somewhere they feel they have support. I fear our many of our wards and stakes don’t offer this.

    Instead of trying to guilt us into to reporting good numbers, local leadership should teach its membership how to reach out to others, and work with activity committees to ensure wards are working to a social support structure.

  6. 6 Eric Nielson October 30, 2006 at 8:24 am


    Thanks for your comments. Sorry I took so long to address them.

    You bring up a good point about doing, and local leaders simply passing down the counsel does not accomplish much.

    I am also interested in your ideas about teaching how to fellowship. There are people around like me who have a social blind spot or two that could be addressed.

    I also think there is a problem with valueing human relationships. I think there are many people who know how to fellowship, but do not want to very badly.

    Again, thanks for your comments.

  7. 7 John Mansfield October 30, 2006 at 9:37 am

    That’s an interesting point that Teancum makes about figuring out on a local level how to do these things we want done. In that vein, a stake leader once told me that he was concerned that the members in his stake had strong family networks that obscured the problem that they were very shy about dealing with people beyond their relatives. To overcome that barrier, he was promoting having his stake’s members invite people into their homes who were not relatives nor active members of the Church. Not to set up discussions about the Church or meet the missionaries, but just to broaden and strengthen human contact with the community and develop in the members the capacity to fellowship new members.

  8. 8 Eric Nielson October 30, 2006 at 11:20 am


    That is probably the level I need!

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