On June 23, 2013, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were treated to a historic Worldwide Leadership Broadcast on "Hastening the Work of Salvation."
Among other things, the meeting unveiled how full-time missionaries would soon be invited to use technology, including social media, to share the gospel and interact with members, less-active members and investigators. Members were also counseled to better understand their roles in this great work, and as the meeting marched on, it was clear this wasn’t some flashy new program or trendy, short-term initiative.
It's a way of life.
It's who we are.
Just hours before that memorable meeting, Anderson Gonçalves, originally of Sao Paulo, Brazil, had been called as bishop of the Chesapeake Ward in the Baltimore Maryland Stake. Bishop Gonçalves was paying attention, and, just a few months later, others would be paying attention to him.
I first heard about the Chesapeake Ward from Mark L. Richards, the energetic president of the Maryland Baltimore Mission. On a call about an unrelated issue, he swiftly changed the subject and asked if I'd heard about the remarkable things unfolding in Chesapeake. "This idea of hastening the work,” he said, “that new bishop over there just gets it."
Over the ensuing months, my curiosity about this ward grew almost as fast as the buzz, and a series of interviews revealed how the missionaries, auxiliary leaders and members are all recognizing and embracing their divine role in this new era. They’ve accepted that every player in the Lord's grand production has an important part to play, and the stage is big enough for everyone.
Their shoulder-to-shoulder success is stunning.
Within six months of Bishop Gonçalves being called, the number of members attending sacrament meeting at least once a quarter increased from 227 to 319, and those attending every week jumped by 64. The ward has had 11 converts baptized, and all of them are active with a calling and with their sights set on the temple.
Those unified efforts truly put the "haste" in "hasten."
After his call and the Worldwide Leadership Broadcast, Bishop Gonçalves immediately sought to identify and know each member of his ward. Most importantly, using his full-time missionaries and ward council, he verified precisely who lived in the ward, who didn’t and what their needs were.
Michael and Lyda Larsen, a senior couple from Astoria, Ore., serving in the ward, described Bishop Gonçalves’ drive: “He absolutely insists on knowing each person on the list. He wants to know who they are and if they really live where the records indicate. And if not, he actively pursues getting their records to the right place.”
But he doesn’t simply delegate and wait for the answers. “He practices what he preaches,” Sister Larsen said. “He’s always out visiting in homes, seeing what’s going on. Members observe that, they respect that, and in turn we all want to follow him and do our part.”
The surge of missionaries spurred by the October 2012 minimum age requirement change has certainly helped. In addition to the Larsens, the ward is blessed with two sets of full-time elders and a companionship of sisters. Sister Lexi Schofield, a full-time missionary from St. George, leapt at the opportunity to share her perspective on why the ward has become a model of hastening the work.
With palpable enthusiasm, Sister Schofield easily described what she sees as three keys to the ward’s success. “First, it’s fellowship. Members are inviting less-active (members) on their own without being pressured. Second, our ward leadership, especially the bishopric, never settles. Bishop reminds us all the time we’ve done great things, but now is not the time to stop. There is much more work to do. Finally, it’s working here because we’re unified. Missionaries and members have open, daily communication. They treat us like equals in the work.”
Her mission president certainly agrees. “The special ingredient in Chesapeake is the absolute unity of the full-time missionaries and the ward members, particularly in the ward council,” President Richards said. He added that their shared goals of real growth and true conversion, with a balanced focus on reactivation, convert baptisms and retention, all contribute to their success.
Baltimore Stake President Craig Halsey, one of the many who agreed the Chesapeake story needed to be shouted from the virtual rooftops, also had three reasons for the ward’s resurgence. “Obedience. Love. Vision,” he said. “It’s that simple. It is an unbeatable trifecta, and it’s infectious.”
When asked to elaborate, President Halsey explained our universal tendency to "chase rabbits" and new gimmicks as we hunt success. “Bishop Gonçalves has truly stuck to the building blocks. He is focused on the pearl and on the rescue.”
President Halsey was also eager to praise Bishop Gonçalves’ predecessor, Jason Fox. “Make no mistake, the groundwork was done by Bishop Fox, and all the foundational principles were in place for this new bishop to hit the ground running.”
Chesapeake ward mission leader Michael Eusebio also weighed in, describing a unique "rescue" held one Sunday in January. Members gathered in the chapel after church and watched President Gordon B. Hinckley address seminary students in a video from 1981. In the clip, President Hinckley shares the poignant, heroic rescue by three 18-year-old young men of many pioneers on the freezing Platte River in 1856.
“Then the bishop invited the whole ward to rescue our lost brothers and sisters,” Eusebio said. “We were amazed by the response.” They were assigned into companionships and two-by-two immediately left to visit a few families each and to invite them back to church. Every duo then returned and reported.
“Now, if that's not ‘hastening’ the work, I don't know what is,” Eusebio added. ”The members did a magnificent job!”
Every individual interviewed mentioned that activity as an important factor in the ward’s success. But Bishop Gonçalves made clear the special day wasn’t a one-time effort. They will repeat the process two or three times annually.
Not surprisingly, Bishop Gonçalves is humble about the ward’s success during his first nine months as bishop. When discussing the impressive numbers, Bishop Gonçalves was quick to interrupt. “Records represent real people. I don’t like to see numbers; I like to see names.”
In fact, Bishop Gonçalves and his ward clerk don’t take attendance during sacrament meeting simply by counting heads; they look for faces. By the end of church, they have a list of everyone missing. Most Sundays, the missionaries and a representative from each auxiliary are asked to attend a very brief "stand-up meeting" in the bishop’s office immediately after the meetings. Bishop Gonçalves hands each person a piece of paper with several names of missing members.
Each missing sheep is contacted, many right on the spot, and by the end of the day, concerned friends have delivered a very special message. “We missed you today. Are you all right? Do you need anything?” Once again, leaders return and report to the bishop.
“These friends who are missing,” Bishop Gonçalves said, “many times they feel they are forgotten. Inside, they have a testimony that might be dormant, and they just need someone to care. They need us to put some time in, to show love.”
Bishop Gonçalves said that as their ward membership rises and falls, the numbers are important to track but are irrelevant to the real goals. “Whether we have 500 or 1,000 in the ward family, I want to know each one and what their needs are. It means nothing if we had a full building on Sunday and I know none of them.”
Call by call, text by text and living room by living room, Bishop Gonçalves wants members of the ward to know that their reason for leaving doesn’t matter. “No matter what, they are welcome back. We have so much work to do, and we want them to do it with us.”
Before we ended our second interview, Bishop Gonçalves shared his joy at recently watching a 64-year-old man come back after more than three decades away. “He’d been praying for hope,” Bishop Gonçalves said. “Then one day the missionaries stopped by on assignment to invite him back to church.”
It’s just one of many stories of those rescued and welcomed back into the fold.
As Bishop Gonçalves nears the one-year mark of his ministry as bishop of the Chesapeake Ward, he admits he might receive more credit than he deserves for his role in this divine production. He’s the first to acknowledge that, along with his fellow ward members, he’s just another player on stage — the Lord is the real director.
While every element of Bishop Gonçalves’ and his ward’s efforts to rescue might not work everywhere around the world, he is convinced every ward and branch can become a model for "hastening the work."
Given his track record, who would doubt him?
Jason Wright is a New York Times bestselling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and "The Wednesday Letters." Learn more at jasonfwright.com, or connect on Facebook at facebook.com/jfwbooks, or by email at [email protected].