I passed the sacrament tray to the man on my right, but he didn’t take it. Trying to hide my surprise, I turned and passed it back in the other direction.
Throughout the rest of the meeting this man’s behavior was so withdrawn that the feeling was palpable, which led me to assume there was serious pain he was experiencing. I have no idea if that assumption was correct, and I don’t remember ever seeing that man again. But I’ve never forgotten that experience and how I wished I could have better eased the pains he was so evidently feeling.
Since then, I’ve wondered how we, as Latter-day Saints, can help those who may feel uncomfortable at church—specifically those who are participating differently in their wards because their membership has been restricted for a time. That restriction may include things like partaking of the sacrament and entering the temple as those individuals begin the repentance process. The General Handbook explains that “Restricting or withdrawing a person’s membership is not intended to punish. Rather, these actions are sometimes necessary to help a person repent and experience a change of heart. They also give a person time to prepare spiritually to renew and keep his or her covenants again.”
We want everyone—especially those going through the repentance process—to know that they are loved and accepted when they walk inside the chapel doors on a Sunday or when they participate in church activities. But how can we do a better job of helping them feel like there is a place for them? Are there ways that we can intentionally make their burdens a little bit lighter to bear?
In an effort to find some guidance, I thought I’d learn more about how we can help people feel welcome if they aren’t fully participating at church. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope that these dos and don’ts that I’ve compiled from my research will help us become more united as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I also hope it helps us recognize that we are all on this path together, as each and every one of us is redeemed from sin through the Atonement of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Note: Readers are advised to consider the ideas in this article on a case-by-case basis. For example, some of these ideas likely do not apply when interacting with a member who has exhibited predatory behavior or victimized others. If someone has caused you mental, emotional, or physical harm, we encourage you to seek professional guidance and ecclesiastical help.
1. Love them
Most of the time, it’s likely you will not know when a fellow ward member is going through a spiritual struggle to the point that they aren’t fully participating at church. Perhaps they’re afraid to talk to the bishop about some choices they’ve made in their past and feel like they’re on a different path than their fellow brothers and sisters. Or perhaps they have taken the necessary steps and have begun the repentance process. But it’s fair to assume that at some point—maybe even more often than you realize—there are people sitting in the pews beside you who feel like outsiders.
In Jesus’s time, outsiders were not uncommon—but Christ never saw them that way. During an October 2013 general conference address, Bishop Gérald Caussé reflected on how Jesus showed compassion and respect to “those who were excluded from society, those who were rejected and considered to be impure by the self-righteous” and noted that “they received an equal part of His teachings and ministry.”
Now, over 2,000 years since the Savior’s ministry, we have the sacred responsibility to look after and feed His sheep. Bishop Caussé explained, “Throughout time the people of God have been commanded to care for all individuals who are strangers or who may be seen as different. … In this Church there are no strangers and no outcasts. There are only brothers and sisters.”
Let’s think about that—there are no strangers or outcasts in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But how do we make that a reality? The answer is simple: love. This commandment from the Savior is how all people know that we are His disciples (John 13:34–35); it is also one way that they can feel hope in moments of deep despair. As members who have experienced a change in their membership feel our love for them, they may also feel the love of Christ through us. Consequently, we can make their journey more joyful as they realize they do not have to face their path alone.
2. Reach out to them
One of the best ways we can show our love for those who may be experiencing membership restrictions is to reach out to them. During the April 2017 general conference, Elder Dale G. Renlund discussed how the Savior offered kindness to those who had sinned instead of turning away from them. He said:
“He did not disdainfully walk the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea, flinching at the sight of sinners. He did not dodge them in abject horror. No, He ate with them. He helped and blessed, lifted and edified, and replaced fear and despair with hope and joy. Like the true shepherd He is, He seeks us and finds us to offer relief and hope.”
We can follow the Savior’s example and likewise offer relief and hope to those who may not be able to fully participate at church due to actions in their past. This doesn’t mean we agree with sins or wrongdoing, but we can give others the encouragement they need to repent and move forward (see John 8:3–11). Elder Renlund taught, “We, who are sinners, must, like the Savior, reach out to others with compassion and love. Our role is also to help and bless, lift and edify, and replace fear and despair with hope and joy. … As His disciples, let us fully mirror His love and love one another so openly and completely that no one feels abandoned, alone, or hopeless.”
3. Build a relationship with them
A 2018 Ensign article called “Building Meaningful Relationships” has some valuable insights on how to deepen your relationships with others which are applicable in a variety of situations. It reads, “A relationship takes time to develop. Look for opportunities to maintain contact. Studies show that letting people know you care is essential to healthy relationships.”
If you know of someone who doesn’t fully participate in church, showing them you care is a good place to start. Don’t go overboard and try to love them too much—as the article stated, remember that relationships take time. That individual is likely working through a lot of difficult emotions and may not be ready to open up yet.
However, you can always start building a foundation for healthy relationships by maintaining contact with that person and establishing a real connection with them. Going beyond the superficial and truly learning about the other person can help create a more rewarding relationship for both parties involved—and often, listening is a good place to start. The article explains, “Listening is a critical part of communicating that you care. When you listen carefully, your opportunity to help others come unto Christ increases as you gain understanding and insight into their needs and as they feel loved, understood, and safe.”
By taking the time to listen to others, we can help someone who is working through their past feel safe and come unto Christ. As a result, He can bring about real change and healing in their lives.
4. Invite them
Everyone wants to feel needed and included, and those who are unable to fully participate at church may need that connection more than ever. So while it might feel awkward to invite someone to a church activity or to other service opportunities if you’re unsure of how that invitation will be received, don’t hesitate—as long as you are genuine, they will be able to sense that you sincerely care about them.
A 2022 Liahona article put it this way: “Prophets today have … encouraged us to find natural ways to keep God at the forefront in our lives and to love, share, and invite. … The more comfortable and natural our loving invitations can be, the more comfortable we will be in extending our love and invitations, and the more comfortable others will be to receive them.”
It’s also important to be considerate in your invitation—maybe the person you are reaching out to isn’t comfortable joining a ward party, but they’d like to go on a walk with you instead. Or if they do take you up on joining a larger church activity, remember to look out for them while you’re there. A 2018 Ensign article about inviting friends to church says, “Do what you can to make them feel welcome and meet their needs. … Let them know how great it was to have them there.”
It can take a lot of courage for someone to accept an invitation if they’re worried about how others will receive them because of their past. There’s also a chance that they will decline your invitation. That’s OK too—it’s important to be respectful of their wishes and what they may or may not be ready for. But as you look out for them and show interest in being their friend, you can change their experience and help them feel a part of a spiritual community that they may desperately need.
5. Treat them like a cherished family member or friend
The hymn “Lord, I Would Follow Thee” has many powerful reminders that are useful when it comes to our interactions with those who are trying to find their way back to the covenant path. In verse two, the lyrics “Who am I to judge another / When I walk imperfectly?” remind us that we all sin, and it is not our place to judge others who are imperfect like us.
And in verse four, we read these powerful lines: “Savior, may I love my brother / As I know thou lovest me.” This word choice is significant as it reminds us that while we are each other’s ward family, we are also spiritual siblings—and we should love one another accordingly. Having that perspective can change our approach when interacting with someone who is unable to fully participate as a member of the Church. If we treat them not just as a neighbor, but as a beloved family member or friend, their struggles become more real to us. We are also more likely to love them unconditionally and recognize the potential they have to overcome their challenges.
6. Don’t assume anything about them
At church, we have many opportunities to share our testimony of principles that are deeply meaningful to us. That can include the temple or the opportunity to partake of the sacrament. Those are wonderful topics to talk about—but it may be helpful not to assume that everyone in your congregation or Sunday School class is able to participate in the same way. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about those subjects—hearing your testimony may inspire someone who is working on being worthy once again. But being careful in how you present your thoughts may make all the difference in helping someone feel like there is a place for them in their community rather than believing that they are alone in their struggles.
Being aware of others’ feelings as we teach or bear our testimony doesn’t have to be complicated. By simply following the Spirit and assuming the best of others, we will know what to say that will best help all who are listening. Elder Marvin J. Ashton once said, “If we could look into each other’s hearts and understand the unique challenges each of us faces, I think we would treat each other much more gently, with more love, patience, tolerance, and care.” That advice can be applicable to any situation but is especially relevant at church where we can all be a part of creating a space where everyone feels at home.
7. Don’t ask them inappropriate personal questions
If you are aware of someone who isn’t fully participating as a member of the Church, you might be tempted to ask them about the details of their situation. But chances are that individual wants to keep that information private between themselves, church leadership, and God.
The Church’s General Handbook states, “The purpose of confession is to encourage members to unburden themselves so they can fully seek the Lord’s help in changing and healing.” If someone you know is experiencing restrictions with their church membership, they are already working with church leadership and are taking the right steps in the repentance process to change and heal. Giving them the space to draw closer to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in the way they have established with their leaders can show that you respect their efforts.
However, if someone wishes to confide in you and the situation is appropriate, listening to them can help them along their path. Psychologist Wendy Ulrich says, “Sharing our experience with someone who loves and supports us helps us feel less isolated and alone with our shame. Because the whole point of shame is to shun and exclude us, reconnecting with loving friends combats shame and keeps our foibles in perspective. Reconnecting with people who love us reminds us of our worth and value.”
While we may want to rush the process of helping a friend or loved one open up, that may be less constructive than letting them come to you. In the meantime, being a support to them and loving them may be just what they need to help them recognize their value as a child of God—and you can always give them that.
8. Don’t try to fix them
If someone has broken a commandment, we might want to fix the situation so that they can be in a better place spiritually and emotionally as soon as possible. But it’s important to remember that repentance is a personal process, and one that the individual needs to explore on their own.
The scripture 3 Nephi 9:20 reminds us of just how personal the process of repentance is. It reads, “Ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” That type of sacrifice is not something you can offer for somebody else—a broken heart and a contrite spirit has to come from someone’s personal desire to draw closer to God.
Repentance is also a process that takes time. Trying to fix someone by speeding up the process may not give them the time they need to truly change and be “motivated by love for God and the sincere desire to obey His commandments,” as the Church’s website says. Rather than trying to force the process, we can show someone that no matter what stage of repentance they’re in, we’ll do our best to love and support them.
9. Be aware of their feelings
There are many ways we can be considerate of someone’s feelings if we notice that their church participation has changed. Instead of assuming that someone is not going to partake of the sacrament and passing it beyond them, we can hand it to them just as we would to anyone else. That way, the individual can make the choice not to partake of it.
Remember what the General Handbook says? “Restricting or withdrawing a person’s membership is not intended to punish. Rather, these actions are sometimes necessary to help a person repent and experience a change of heart.” With this in mind, we can see that when someone doesn’t take the sacrament, they are likely desiring to truly change and follow the guidance of their leaders in the repentance process. So instead of looking at them, wondering what they did, or judging them, we can think about how they may be feeling and recognize the courage it must have taken to show up in the pews that Sunday.
Regardless of circumstance, the sacrament is a time for all to reflect on the Savior. In his book Beyond the Shade of the Mango Tree, Elder Edward Dube wrote that “The sacrament is a time of self-examination and repentance. It is a time to acknowledge our weakness and our need for the Lord to cleanse us and ‘make [us] a new heart and a new spirit’ (Ezekiel 18:31). In our efforts to make changes in our lives and make a difference in the lives of others, we need Him. Only through Him and His Atonement can we find lasting success and joy. Only ‘through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of [our] sins,’ can we ‘become holy, without spot’ (Moroni 10:33).
When we are interacting with those whose Church membership may have gone through significant changes, we can remember that it is only through the Savior’s Atonement that we become clean once again. His sacrifice was not for a select few but for all of us. He can make things right. As we all repent, we can gain “a fresh view about God, about ourselves, and about the world” (see Gospel Topics)—and we can find peace.
President Russell M. Nelson taught, “Nothing is more liberating, more ennobling, or more crucial to our individual progression than is a regular, daily focus on repentance. Repentance is not an event; it is a process. It is the key to happiness and peace of mind. When coupled with faith, repentance opens our access to the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”
Looking back on that day in sacrament meeting, I would like to think that if I knew what I do now, my reaction would be different when the man beside me didn’t take the sacrament. Instead of being surprised, I hope I would first respect his humility and consider him a member of my own family. And who knows—maybe that small change in me would help him feel that not only was he welcome to worship at church, but he also was loved and accepted there.
None of us are perfect. As Latter-day Saints, we can recognize that and help one another in the daily, lifelong process of repentance. In doing so, we will find that our decision to turn unto Christ is a joyful one as we are more united in helping one another journey back to our Heavenly Father.