Why Some Dropped Out

Challenges to Church Growth

James A. Toronto, Eric R Dursteler, and Michael W. Homer, "Why Some Dropped Out: Challenges to Church Growth," in Mormons in the Piazza: History of the Latter-Day Saints in Italy, James A. Toronto, Eric R. Dursteler, and Michael W. Homer (Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017), 453-488.

In any faith community, the “long trajectory of transformation” after a convert’s initial act of resolve is often a difficult journey fraught with progress and pitfalls, successes and setbacks.[1] A fundamental reality emerges: it is one thing for converts to make commitments and embrace a new faith, but it is quite another to maintain their resolve and affiliation as they confront the consequences of their choice and the dilemmas of daily life. Every religious community experiences some degree of attrition in commitment and participation among its membership.

Various studies have documented the fact that while missionary enterprises may yield new recruits, they struggle—over time and for a variety of reasons—to retain a significant number of these individuals as active participants.[2] Recruitment of converts, in other words, is only the first part of the formula for real church growth; retention of converts is equally vital in sustaining and consolidating church viability in the long run. Long-term conversion turns out to be, for many initiates, a tenuous proposition.

The retention rate in Italian Latter-day Saint congregations is consistent with the churchwide average of about 25–30 percent, and a variety of factors influence the decision of converts to remain active or to drop out. A common theme among Italian members was that retention of converts constituted an enormous challenge to the church which, if addressed properly, could increase the size and profile of the church in Italy. Such observations suggest that there are factors that impact members’ decisions about whether and to what degree to remain actively involved in the church after baptism.

Interviews, personal observation, and published research over a fifty-year period and sheds light on some general trends in convert retention, why a large percentage of Italian converts struggled to adapt to and remain active in the LDS Church. The specific examples and challenges we identify in this chapter represent various time periods, regional cultures, church units, and individual converts. Therefore, they do not—indeed cannot—characterize the experience of every person, place, and era in this long trajectory of growth and change. In addition, while identifying general retention issues in the Italian context, we recognize that these trends are not necessarily typical of only the Italian context. Most, if not all, can be found in other sociocultural settings and in emerging congregations throughout the church. Finally, while our research included a broad cross-section of Italian Mormons, it was not as comprehensive as we desired because only the church’s in-house research division is permitted to conduct direct, formal membership surveys. That said, our study of the root causes of disaffection and disaffiliation in Mormon congregations adds to the small body of published literature on this pressing topic. Our hope is that the issues we address and the findings we present might be a catalyst for more extensive research on convert retention in Italy and in other areas of the international church.

The Question of Real Growth

In recent years, issues surrounding rates of growth and retention in the LDS church have been a source of debate. Various researchers have challenged the validity of church reports that show high annual rates of conversion and a burgeoning worldwide membership (about fifteen million in 2013). They argue that these statistics do not take into account the high percentage of converts who no longer participate on a regular basis—about 70 percent worldwide—and therefore distant the Church’s real growth. Studies indicate that attendance at weekly sacrament meeting (the basis for determining retention rates) varies markedly from one geographic region to another. Figures reported in 1992 estimated retention rates at 25 percent in Asia and Latin America, 35 percent in Europe, and 40–50 percent in the United States and Canada, and more recent studies have placed the average retention rate at 25–35 percent churchwide and about 25 percent in Europe.[3] As such, if the estimates are accurate, only about four to five million members out of the total fifteen million are actually sitting in the pews of Mormon chapels on a given Sunday around the world.[4]

Other indicators of retention problems in the church include national census data that show wide gaps between reported church membership in various countries and citizens who identify themselves as Mormons,[5] and a slowdown since the 1980s in creating stakes—an important benchmark of church strength—despite high conversion rates.[6] According to one researcher, the disparity between reported membership figures and actual rates of activity and retention begs the question of what real growth is: “When individuals are baptized but do not attend church, do not identify themselves as Church members, and do not believe or live the teachings of the Church, . . . [and] when so few converts become participating members that durable new Church units cannot be organized and some existing units are collapsed because of the loss of previously active members, has the Church grown?” Another approach would be to “measure, report, and discuss Church growth in terms of active, faithful, and participating members and focus on building strong, vibrant units, rather than lauding paper membership increases that do not reflect true strength and commitment.”[7]

Church officials have defended the LDS strategy for reporting growth rates but have also acknowledged that problems exist and undertaken efforts to address them. Church spokespersons regularly note that all religions experience some degree of defection and that, in publishing its membership reports, the church does not “make claims to be the fastest-growing Christian faith” nor does it publish comparisons of growth to other religions “because membership statistics are prepared and reported differently by various religious groups.” In contrast to some journalists and LDS authors and bloggers, leaders tended to avoid hyperbole in discussing church growth, speaking of steady rates of increase “as indicated by the need to build more chapels and temples to accommodate membership” and of the church’s interest in individuals, not numbers.[8] “Ultimately, the strength of the Church is really measured by the devotion and commitment of its members,” observed a senior church leader. “The Lord has never given us the mandate to be the biggest Church—in fact, He has said our numbers will be comparatively few.”[9] Church reports reflect total membership—both converts and births of record, whether fully, partially, or nonobservant—because of scriptural injunctions to remember and nourish church members (Moroni 6:4) and because experience and research show that individual participation rates and levels of commitment fluctuate over time. Only 22 percent remain active their entire lives, while nearly half (44 percent) go through periods of inactivity and then resume their church involvement, according to one study.[10]

General Authorities spoke frequently and publicly about the challenges of convert retention and the contributing factors. President Gordon B. Hinckley made this a prominent theme beginning in the late 1990s, urging the faithful to give equal effort both to baptizing and to retaining new converts: “Having found and baptized a new convert, we have the challenge of fellowshipping him and strengthening his testimony of the truth of this work. We cannot have him walking in the front door and out the back. . . . Unless there are friendly hands and welcome hearts to greet him and lead him along the way, he may drop by the side.”[11] In 1999, during a satellite broadcast on conversion and retention, Elder M. Russell Ballard, an Apostle, stressed the importance of “real growth” over statistical growth: “You cannot establish the Church in your own area unless you produce real growth—that is, not just growth on paper or in the number of membership records in your ward or stake. Real growth entails increasing the number of participating, dedicated Latter-day Saints.” The key to achieving real growth and increasing activity rates, he stated, is “a true and effective partnership” between leaders, members, and full-time missionaries: “Experience shows . . . that when missionaries find and baptize converts without member support and involvement, such converts usually struggle mightily to maintain their tender faith and to become integrated into the community of Saints.”[12]

The following year, Elder Dallin H. Oaks reiterated the same theme, reminding mission presidents that “a distressing proportion” of converts drop out, with the sharpest attrition occurring in the first two months after baptism. Acknowledging that “we have not yet significantly increased our effectiveness” in retaining new converts, he cited two factors as vital in rectifying the problem: (1) member involvement in proselytizing and fellowshipping (investigators are ten times more likely to be baptized when they know a member well), and (2) support for investigators and new members in their struggle to overcome addictions (one-third to one-half of whom reported lapses in their observance of the Word of Wisdom after baptism).[13]

Mormon scholars have weighed in on these questions as well, publishing research that examines the challenges of international church growth and suggesting possible adaptations that the church could make to reduce attrition and to strike a better balance between the need for both organizational unity and local diversity.[14] Their work highlights many of the same issues and findings that surfaced in our research on Italy: for example, costs of conversion and membership—social, emotional, and financial—that are higher in many ways for European members than for North American members; norms and traditions of local culture that clash with church imperatives; teaching curricula that lack relevance to real-world problems and issues of importance in Europe; strict adherence to some principles—such as Sunday observance and dress and grooming standards—that tend to isolate European members from their families and communities; and aspects of church administration that are overly complex and difficult to manage in newer, struggling units. Several studies have shown that levels of convert retention tend to be lowest in countries with historically high conversion rates (e.g., Chile, Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines), pointing to weaknesses in the overall proselytizing strategy that we also observed: pressure on missionaries to achieve numerical goals, superficial preparation of potential converts, rushed baptisms, and poor coordination between members and missionaries in helping converts integrate into their new community.[15]

Internal Challenges: Administration, Teaching, and Socialization

There are subtle tensions and fault lines within the church’s culture and structure that has sometimes weakened the foundations of its growth in Italy. In addition to external factors that affected conversion and retention rates—attitudes toward religion, economic conditions, local culture and religious traditions—research data shed light on internal issues that influenced religious behavior and decisions of converts. These included the impact of an unfamiliar American-style organizational ethos, the viability of official retention programs, the quality of curricula and teaching, and problems resulting from inadequate collaboration between missionaries and members.

Impact of administrative complexity on member morale. Italian church members noted one issue in particular that has proven to be a persistent thorn in their side: the American style of administering church affairs. The origin and impact of the church’s correlation program—rooted in the American corporate ethos of goal setting, statistical reporting, and accountability—presented challenges to many local leaders, who chafed at the administrative task required of them, viewing it as too complicated, numbers-based, and time-consuming.

While motivated to serve faithfully and to sacrifice personal time for the greater good, leaders frequently expressed frustration that “secondary” administrative tasks overwhelmed their “primary”—and more fulfilling—pastoral role of nurturing the flock and spending time with family. An experienced male church leader commented that “we need fewer meetings and administrative burdens, more time for family, less formality, more simplicity, more depth of opportunity for culture, history, reflection. We are too dedicated to numbers and organization.” A female church leader noted that administrative complexity contributes to the high rate of defection among converts: “Some converts fall away because they become tired or burned out by the high level of commitment required. Church activity involves the whole week. People like my husband, who was branch president seven times, tire out because they can’t do everything, and so they quit coming.”

Longtime church members spoke passionately and insightfully about their desire for changes that would shift more decision-making authority to the local level and allow them to focus on the all-important, but often marginalized, pastoral dimensions of religious life:

Big [church] organization doesn’t work well here in Italy. There are many discussions at higher levels of church administration that affect us but don’t include us. Seventy percent of our time as church leaders is administrative, not pastoral. Paper work consumes too much time. We can’t make it work—it takes time from things that really count, like visiting and helping people.

We hope for organizational change—more simplicity, a slower pace, allowing more time for family and missionary work. Administrative tasks consume too much time—the system doesn’t fit our culture. There are so many papers to fill out. Papers, papers, papers! Maybe this works where there are many members who can divide the work, but here in the frontier of the church, it is too much.

The organization is too centralized in Salt Lake—the mission and area leaders lack power to bring about real change. They have to clear just about everything at central headquarters. We hope to return more to simple gospel values, without so many administrative burdens. We have the sensation at times that the leaders in Salt Lake City are not aware of how these bureaucratic procedures affect our little branches and wards in the outlying areas.

The foregoing observations evince a conflicted tone that is symptomatic of why some Italian members and lay leaders eventually drift away from the church, even after years of earnest belief and committed service. The expectations and demands are high; the amount of administrative minutia is burdensome; a high rate of exasperation and burnout is inevitable. Studies of retention among Latter-day Saints corroborate the fact that the pressure of heavy pastoral burdens, work demands, and family obligations takes a toll on lay church leaders outside of Italy as well.[16]

In Italy the church’s vision of growth and retention based on principles of nurturing and caring for each member of the community—through programs such as home visits—has sometimes been impaired by regimentation (in its organizational structure) that hampers local initiatives and solutions, which senior church leaders have acknowledged.[17] The church’s 2010 Handbook of Instructions for leaders included some measures to address these issues, although quite general in nature: stressing the importance of egalitarian decision making (a system of councils), flexibility, and simplicity in administering church programs at the local level.[18] In the absence of more concrete reforms—such as reducing the number and length of meetings and administrative tasks, simplifying church organization, giving local leaders more latitude in determining culturally congruent standards of dress and Sabbath observance, and allowing more time for ministering to individuals—the pressing demands inherent in serving the needs of a diverse flock will continue unabated, and the problem of burnout and disaffection among church leaders will persist.

Constraints in church retention programs. A cornerstone of the LDS system for retaining converts and bolstering activity rates is home teaching. As practiced today, two home teachers, consisting of two men, are assigned to visit several individuals or families in their homes at least once each month, inquire about their well-being, impart a spiritual message, and then report the outcome of their visits to priesthood leaders who help arrange any necessary assistance. A parallel program, called visiting teaching, operates in a similar fashion among the women of the church. The overall goal of these programs is to help every member stay connected by providing friendship, encouragement, and spiritual and temporal support on a regular basis beyond the normal Sunday meetings. They are intended to increase retention rates by reinforcing communal and familial relationships and helping converts sustain long-term commitments after baptism.

Interview data from Italy indicate that similar benefits have accrued in some families and church units but that, overall, a number of social, cultural, and ecclesiastical forces have significantly impaired the effectiveness of home teaching and thus undermined the church’s capacity to retain converts. Indicative of this problem is the comment of a mission president who reported that “when we arrived [in Italy], the Italian members told us, ‘We don’t do home teaching here. We tried it before, and it was a fiasco.’” In an effort to compensate for the ineffectiveness of the home-teaching program, mission presidents sometimes assigned full-time missionaries to make pastoral home visits and encourage participation by longtime church members and new converts.

According to one church leader, some less active members would return to church if approached properly: “There are a number of inactive members that just need to be asked to come back, but we just haven’t done home teaching very well. If a member doesn’t come for three weeks, the attitude is, ‘That person must not be very strong,’ rather than saying, ‘Let’s go out and see him—find out what’s going on and how we can help.’” Interviews revealed that there were members who had not received a home visit for many years and that, in some cases, this failure to reinforce friendship and emotional support outside of formal meetings led converts to drop out.

Some church leaders in Italy estimated the percentage of monthly participation in home teaching at less than 20 percent, and in an attempt to understand these low rates, cited as a challenge the way that Italian society structures work and school time during the week. The one-day weekend in Italy—essentially Sunday only—for family activities and church meetings leaves little time or energy for home teachers to make the required monthly visits to the homes of church members assigned to them:

People work until 12:30, then take a break at home until 3:30 or so, and then return to work until 7:00 or 8:00 in the evening. So there is no time in the evenings or during the day for church work, home teaching, and other duties. Even Saturdays are not free because public schools are in session and people work. Sunday is the only truly free day in the week, and that’s the day Italian members see as the day to do church and family things. Home teaching, therefore, has been a big problem in the wards and branches. The percentages are very low: maybe 10 to 15 percent.

This problem is exacerbated when home teachers must travel a considerable distance to neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas or to outlying towns and remote villages, often involving daunting time commitments and transportation costs (for low-income family budgets already stretched thin). Because of these constraints, many stalwart members choose to spend their time each Sunday in family and church participation. Thus home teaching gradually migrates to the margins of Latter-day Saint life, and its impact on communal cohesion and convert retention greatly diminishes.

Some dimensions of home teaching, while appropriate for the American context in which they originate, encounter cultural undercurrents in Italy that hamper members’ efforts to carry out these programs effectively. As is generally the case in other European countries, home visits to people outside one’s circle of close family and friends are not as common as in the United States and, when done, follow relatively formal and traditional norms. A monthly home visit by two assigned outsiders—even if from the same congregation—is not customary, and building trust can therefore take time. A church leader, commenting about why home teaching in Italy is sometimes challenging, noted, “Northern Italian culture says don’t bother other people in their homes, especially inactives.”[19] Finally, the central role of the extended Italian family in meeting temporal and spiritual needs and the suspicion that many Italians harbor toward the motives and intentions of people outside their own families emerged as key impediments to church programs intended to bolster convert retention. Interview data reflect sentiments frequently expressed about how the tradition of family-first loyalty conflicts with church loyalty, obstructing the capacity of Italian members to provide temporal and spiritual assistance to people who are not family members. “When home teaching functions, it works well and is a great blessing,” one member observed. “But in Italy most of our support comes from individual and family relationships.” One experienced observer felt that home teaching is problematic in Italy because “trust among church members is lacking. Italians suspect a hidden motive or reason behind everything: dietrologia is the term for this attitude. Italians are suspicious of others’ true motives.”

These observations by Italian Mormons reveal several factors that hobble official programs designed to strengthen church identity and activity: lack of trust in people outside one’s family, the consequent reluctance to give or receive extra-family assistance, and an attitude that home teaching is superfluous in Italy because its purposes are more naturally and effectively fulfilled through traditional kinship networks. However, it is important to note, as one member did, that recent years have witnessed a transformation of traditional family patterns in Italy (as elsewhere in the United States and Europe).[20] Italian church leaders have therefore placed renewed emphasis on home teaching as a means of combating this decline and providing a backup support to the extended family.

Despite these social and organizational constraints, over the years some church leaders, both at the European level and at the Italian level, have attempted to improve the home teaching program—and by extension convert retention and activity rates—by instituting changes designed to make its administration more responsive to local realities and cultural norms. A mission president reported the following example from the 1990s: “The Area Presidency instituted a program to improve home teaching by dividing all ward or branch members into four groups. Group A are the least active who need a visit once/month. Group B need a visit once every two months. Group C once every three months. Group D once every four months. But it didn’t work out because most of the home teachers went out only every three months to visit the most active members.”

A few mission presidents and stake presidents in Italy have also experimented with similar innovations designed to reduce the costs of time and money for home teachers and to reach the people who are most vulnerable to distress and disaffection. One such effort, based loosely on guidelines from the Area Presidency, focused on making the program effective by serving a smaller segment of the membership, thus rendering the task more manageable. Active members were no longer to be visited. Instead, leaders in each local church unit identified members with the highest needs—new converts, single parents, elderly members with health problems, and less actives who might be ready to return to full participation—and then assigned the most dependable, committed members to visit just one or two of these individuals or families on a regular basis to befriend and assist them in any way necessary. In accordance with cultural customs of respecting privacy, the fellowship visits could be made anywhere that the participants found most appropriate: in the home, if that was preferred, but also in the church, at work, or in some other public space.

These local innovations have been comparatively successful in the areas where they have been implemented: members with the most pressing needs receive regular personal attention and assistance, and visits are made in a way that is consistent with traditional norms and therefore more comfortable and satisfying to those involved. The problem is that innovations such as these have been ad hoc in nature and inconsistent in their application, and without official sanction and institution-wide guidelines from church headquarters in Salt Lake City, leaders and members find it difficult to sustain momentum with their home-grown ideas and solutions. Thus initiatives for church growth that work well in the local culture gradually lose steam, members revert to the institutionally prescribed but culturally less effective approaches to fellowshipping, and rates of conversion and retention suffer accordingly.

Relevance of curricula and quality of teaching. Italian members pointed to cultural discrepancies in church manuals that sometimes sparked disagreements and tensions among members. The core issue is that information presented in official curriculum materials of the church is considered sacrosanct by many members. Newer converts, unable to readily distinguish between “eternal essentials” and “temporary trappings,” and inexperienced teachers often feel obliged to teach lessons exactly as outlined in the manuals and reluctant to deviate from the printed material or to add personal insights or interpretation to the literal reading of the text. To make matters even more difficult, church manuals tended toward authoritative language that discouraged innovative teaching and sometimes contained doctrinal and cultural instruction that did not accurately explain what was and was not official church teaching.

For example, several leaders reported that conflicts arose among Italian members about the question of the origin of life on earth. Specifically, does the theory of evolution conflict with the Christian doctrine of creation? Can we trust the findings of science about the accuracy of the fossil record and the existence of dinosaurs? Did humans evolve from lower forms of life? This issue is of course not unique to Latter-day Saints: Christians of many denominations continue to debate whether the Bible can be interpreted to reconcile evolution with creationism. An extensive body of literature on this question in LDS theology exists, documenting how senior church leaders have differed in their opinions over the years and showing that church officials have opted to leave this point of doctrine in the “open-ended” category (i.e., withholding any definitive pronouncement setting forth an official church position).[21]

In Italy the church manual for teaching the Old Testament in Seminaries and Institutes was a translation of a manual that focused on the writings of conservative Mormon leaders who opposed Darwin’s theory of evolution. The manual failed to balance the presentation by citing the writings of moderate church authorities who have sought to find harmony between science and religion on this question. The ensuing debates on this issue among members aroused tension and continued to be a source of discord.

Members revealed other significant points of tension in curricular materials that have at times created discontentment and even disaffection among Italian members. An oft-cited issue deals with dress and grooming standards prescribed for youth. One church leader, reflecting broader sentiment, questioned whether these guidelines were eternal essentials or merely temporary trappings exported from one culture to another: “Clothing styles are a banal issue. The church tells the young men to wear ties and white shirts, which causes problems for our young men. Does the Lord really care what color my shirt is? The same for long hair and earrings—exterior things that are common here among Italian youth. We should have more patience about these less important things.” The problem is compounded by some members, who take it upon themselves to be dress-and-grooming police, bluntly informing young people, new converts, and even investigators when their style of dress and hair do not coincide with church tradition, often causing deep offense.

Another flashpoint was teachings in early manuals that promoted a rigid view of male versus female roles in marriage and took little account of the evolving nature of families and economic realities in modern Italian society. A typical lament points to the angst created among members struggling to make ends meet: “Some teaching materials and manuals tell women not to work outside the home, but here in Italy, both husband and wife have to work to support our families. Having large families, as suggested in some talks and lessons, is not possible here.” Some of the concerns expressed by Italians about LDS family and gender role expectations were placated somewhat with the publication in 1995 of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” an official declaration issued by the presiding authorities that allows married couples flexibility—“individual adaptation” is the term used, based on family circumstances and spiritual guidance—in deciding the specific roles of husband and wife, questions about family size, and who should work outside the home.

In addition to challenges related to the content of curriculum materials, an issue that became a deep concern early on was the quality of teaching in church meetings. A significant number of converts pointed out that the members were ill prepared to assume one of the most important but difficult duties of a lay clergy—providing doctrinal instruction that is engaging, relevant, and stimulating to the congregants. The fundamental problem was that new converts, coming mostly from religious traditions that featured a professional clergy and a more passive style of member participation in church services, had little experience in lay leadership and were unaccustomed to teaching organized lessons and giving prepared sermons in public. One church member explained the problem in terms of the differences between lay and professional models of leadership: “The lay leadership in the LDS Church is a problem sometimes because converts expect trained, professional leadership skills: better prepared, better sermons, more time spent in helping them like their full-time Catholic priests did.” If the teaching and preaching are dogmatic, repetitive, irrelevant, or otherwise spiritually and intellectually unsatisfying, interest in attending church begins to wane.

Many Italian Latter-day Saint converts cited this factor—meetings and instruction that are “long” or “tiring” or “unfulfilling”—as a reason for low conversion and retention rates. The Church has sought to address these problems by offering regular teacher and leadership training, which has helped alleviate the problem somewhat. But with the high turnover in church positions and uneven attendance at training sessions, the concerns about poor quality of instruction and its impact on church growth still persist. It appears, then, that along with the benefits of a democratic, participatory ethos that attracts converts, the costs of a lay membership and leadership who sometimes lack the expertise and training necessary to motivate, inspire, and retain converts over the long term must also be taken into account.

These debates over doctrinal issues, gender roles, dress standards, and the quality of meetings and instruction also occur in other emerging congregations and cause similar conflicts regardless of the particular culture involved. The point to be made concerns an important aspect of church growth, in Italy and elsewhere: the distinction between a first- or second-generation church and an eighth- or ninth-generation church. The dynamics, resources, and challenges of newly emerging units are substantially different from those of older, well-established units. An experienced church leader and careful observer of Mormon life stated that the question is less about culture per se and more about

how members react to these tensions from their (im)maturity and (in)experience in the church, and their (in)ability to put the tensions aside or in perspective. In regions where the church is young—with more converts, more unbalanced personalities among converts, and more converts who are poorly educated—the issues will create more vocal waves and emotional reactions. In more mature wards, with more balanced and seasoned members, the same issues exist but most people have learned to avoid public criticism and open conflicts.

He wryly added that a disadvantage of mature church units is that, because they are more unified, they tend to be less lively and interesting than emerging congregations.[22]

Dealing with doubt. Our research found that easy access to anti-Mormon literature on the Internet and lack of well-designed, informative LDS websites to provide a counterbalance impaired conversion and retention rates. Beginning about the year 2000, members and investigators increasingly went online—rather than to missionaries, church leaders, or official church sources—for further information about church history, doctrine, and practice. In many cases, what they found online raised questions and sowed doubts that eroded the foundation of their relationship with the Mormon community. To cite just one of many examples in Italy, a stake president reported that a bishop in a large ward, after reading extensive online literature that challenged official LDS versions of church history and doctrine, confided that his faith in Mormonism had been shaken. The bishop had also shared his misgivings with his immediate family and large extended family, all of whom were longtime, active members. Some of them eventually left the church, which created a deep crisis of faith that rippled throughout the entire ward and stake.

In recent years, the church has taken some steps to acknowledge this problem and address these issues more directly. A series of nuanced, provocative essays on polygamy, race relations, religious violence, the nature of LDS scripture, and other thorny topics have been posted on the church’s official website, lds.org. Church historian Marlin K. Jensen also publicly cited problems with handling controversy and doubt as major reasons for convert defection. He attributed membership losses in the past ten years, especially among young people, to growing secularization in society, teaching materials that are “severely outdated,” and the inadequacy of the church’s effort to deal with controversial doctrinal and historical issues that gained notoriety with the advent of the Internet.[23] In the opinion of the journalist who reported the story, Elder Jensen had put his finger on a vital issue in contemporary religious life—doubt—which is “perhaps the largest challenge not only to Mormonism, but also to modern organized religion as a whole.”[24] Despite these problems, Jensen argued that Mormonism remained a vibrant faith community, opining that “we are at a time of challenge, but it isn’t apocalyptic.”[25]

Challenges in the conversion and socialization process. A major issue surrounding low retention of converts deals with how missionaries and members collaborate in preparing investigators for baptism and in fellowshipping them once they join the church. Consistently, interviewees identified issues in the conversion process that led to hasty, premature baptisms and to weak social support for converts after baptism—two key factors that lead to high dropout rates.

Church members identified problems that arose as a natural consequence of Italianization of leadership in the 1970s and 1980s. One result was increasing distance and less communication between members and missionaries. Early missionaries “had a strong bond with the members,” according to one member, but after about the mid-70s “a strong detachment [forte distacco]” developed. From that time on, said another informant, missionaries were “not as involved in the lives of the members and investigators.” This growing detachment of missionaries and changes in their discussions led to a style of teaching investigators that became less attuned to issues unique to Italian life, as pointed out in the following three observations: “The missionary discussions have been improved and simplified, but impoverished in some ways.” “Missionaries don’t seem to exhibit a cultural preparation at all.” “Now the missionaries teach, but they need to adapt to our local ways—our way of thinking, doing, seeing the world.” Local members expressed concern about missionaries’ overzealous pursuit of mission baptismal goals, which included making rash predictions about growth and rushing to convert individuals who were ill-prepared for long-term church commitments. Over the years, members became “disenchanted with promises of lots of baptisms” that never materialized. In sum, a church leader observed, “the competitive style of missionary work doesn’t go well here in Italy.”

Tensions sometimes arose between missionaries and local Italian members over the question of converts’ preparation and readiness for church membership. Young missionaries (who were always conscious of mission baptismal goals and whose long hours of proselytizing normally yield few teaching opportunities and even fewer serious candidates for baptism) were prone to take a more lenient stance in assessing the readiness and commitment of their investigators. The Italian members, on the other hand—jaded by years of dealing with a revolving door of new missionaries and new converts who come, stay a while, and leave—advocated a more stringent approach to preparing people for baptism. Go slower, they say. Take more time in the teaching process, even several months or years if necessary, and allow investigators more opportunities to attend church meetings, replace harmful habits with more wholesome ones, form strong relationships with the members, and acquire a deeper understanding of the benefits and expectations of membership. Let the investigators indicate when they are ready to convert, rather than constantly prodding and pressuring them to make a decision. In the words of one interviewee, “Converts who stay in the church understand that this is a new style of life, of understanding. They are touched by the Spirit. True conversions weren’t quick conversions—they first overcame obstacles, attended church several months, and became integrated before baptism. The competitive system of achieving baptismal results doesn’t work anymore.”

An ongoing process of socialization of converts after baptism was another key factor in retention. Problems of disaffection, we found, could be traced in some cases to the reluctance of church members to adequately befriend investigators and converts and help them make the difficult transition to an unfamiliar new belief system and social network. At times, as one less-active member noted, the bad example of members drove converts away: “I had no problems with the commandments. Some doctrines were hard to understand; some contradictions took me a while to grasp. But relations with church members have been a test for me at times. Not all church members are angels.” Unwillingness to provide emotional support to newcomers struggling to overcome the social alienation associated with joining a minority religion frequently contributed to low retention: “The activity rate is 30–40 percent in the Padova Mission [1996]. Why do 60 percent go inactive? If converts are fellowshipped, made to feel loved and needed, given a calling to serve, they don’t usually go inactive. But too many members are cliquish, hold grudges, and don’t reach out to new members, especially in large branches and new buildings. The coldness problem in large branches is real, unfortunately.”

The cultural propensity toward mistrust of outsiders and favoritism for close family and friends appears to have influenced to some degree the social dynamics of wards and branches. In any culture, old attitudes and time-honored traditions do not completely wash away in the waters of baptism, and the significance of baptismal covenants requiring church members to care for each other takes time to learn and assimilate.

A complicating factor in the past two decades has been the impact of mass immigration into Italy and the fact that approximately 60 percent of convert baptisms there, and in the rest of Europe, derive from populations whose lives, generally speaking, are characterized by deprivation, uncertainty, and transience. While immigrant converts in many ways enriched and strengthened the church in Italy, Italian members also faced challenges in integrating them into the fabric of their communal life. Issues of class and race shaped the attitudes of some members who, having lived their entire lives in the comparatively homogeneous confines of Italian society, found the prospect of inviting strangers of a low socioeconomic class, different race, and foreign language into their homes and lives simply too daunting. In some cases immigrants, sensing these prejudices and feeling isolated, have withdrawn from church participation.

The vast majority of Italian members, though, welcomed the energy and diversity that immigrant converts brought to the Latter-day Saint community, often expending liberal amounts of time and money to assist them in resolving legal problems, finding work, and procuring food and shelter. Often, because of this assistance, immigrant church members have succeeded in establishing residency and becoming permanent, deeply devoted participants and leaders in their congregations. But the high maintenance needs of many immigrant members have overwhelmed the resources of the Italian church in some areas, especially smaller branches where strong, active members are few in number. In these circumstances, converts are forced to migrate elsewhere to satisfy basic needs, in many cases never returning to church activity. In sum, whether immigrant converts drop out because of perceived prejudices or, more commonly, because their lives are by nature precarious and transient, retention rates suffer heavy reversals.

In 2004, important changes designed to promote closer collaboration between members and missionaries and to fortify conversion and retention were instituted. Local church leaders (bishops and branch presidents) assumed greater responsibility for missionary work and were assigned to hold more frequent meetings between councils of church members and full-time missionaries, receive detailed progress reports on investigators, converts, and less actives, and generally ensure that members and missionaries collaborate in all aspects of conversion and retention. The intent was, in the words of President Gordon B. Hinckley, to see that every convert has “friendly hands and welcome hearts to greet him and lead him along the way,” before and after baptism, so that he or she does not “drop by the side.”[26]

And, in fact, improvements in this regard gradually began to take hold in some church units. But in many branches and wards the reality was a pale shadow of this ideal: church leaders and missionaries struggled to handle the amount of record keeping and meetings required to implement these guidelines (in addition to their other demanding administrative, pastoral, and family duties), so the divisions and miscommunication between the two groups concerning missionary work persisted. The result was that too frequently, converts had only rudimentary understanding of church doctrine and practice, weak commitment and capacity to live church standards, and an inadequate degree of social integration in their new religious community. These deficiencies in the conversion and socialization process contributed significantly to the high rate of defection in Latter-day Saint congregations in Italy.

External Factors: Tensions between Local Culture and Mormonism

There are many instructive examples of how the overlapping and often clashing identities of cultural heritage and church membership can lead to discord and disaffection. Deeply embedded customs and traditions are difficult to evaluate objectively, and the process of determining what can be retained and what must be abandoned in order to assume a new religious identity fosters emotional turmoil and social conflict. These tensions can significantly degrade the strength of the church, particularly during the first and second generations of growth when local units are small and vulnerable.

One church leader in Italy, commenting on the lingering effects of Italian culture in Mormon religious life, observed:

There is enormous conflict between LDS teachings and the modern Italian culture fostered by the media: for example, sexual mores are very liberal and promiscuous here. Use of drugs is becoming more widespread and acceptable. I remember the talk that Elder Scott gave some time ago about traditions impeding you as a member of the church, that whatever in our culture would keep us away from being a member of the church, that needs to go. . . . There are a lot of those things right now, little things that have crept in that cause people to change the church and put other things and all the traditions in front.

Thus “little things” from local tradition exert subtle but powerful influence and “cause people to change the church,” adversely impacting conversion and retention rates. This problem, of course, is not unique to the Italian context, and the examples of cultural conflict discussed here can be found in one form or another throughout the international church.

Word of Wisdom observance. A major challenge to retention is the incapacity or unwillingness of some converts to observe the Mormon health code: the Word of Wisdom. Converts often continue to struggle in their effort to reconcile their new lifestyle with their cultural upbringing and to sustain the commitments made at baptism. Even though they may have been strongly attracted by other aspects of LDS belief and practice, converts who revert to old habits often drop out, sometimes because of the social opprobrium they feel from other church members. After an initial period of euphoria and enthusiasm following baptism, the spotlight gradually shifts away from the new convert as he or she begins to settle into the normal routine of religious life. Without the intensive support and daily contact with missionaries and members that characterize the prebaptism teaching process, some converts begin slowly to lapse back into more comfortable habits and to forgo some church obligations for one reason or another, often due to social pressure from family, friends, and coworkers. [27]

For example, one young convert generously contributed his time and means to building the church and serving others. He married a young woman in his congregation who had been raised in a strong LDS family. He too came from a large, close-knit family, all devout Catholics, who initially opposed his conversion but eventually showed lukewarm tolerance of his new religion and wife. However, his extended family, like many Italian families, was steeped in the traditions of the cultura del vino. Often family members would make fun of his teetotaling and question the religious and scientific rationale for abstaining from wine. The constant pressure to reconsider his new belief system and to respect time-honored family rituals became a major point of contention in the marriage and eventually took a heavy emotional toll. After several years, the man left the church and his wife because of the contradiction between his psyche, personal habits, and family customs and his commitment to Mormonism.

Style and quality of leadership. Issues of leadership at the local level, particularly in the early stages of church planting, are paramount in attracting and retaining converts, thereby creating viable new church congregations. In areas where there are leaders who exemplify Christian ideals of compassion, service, and humility and exhibit a nurturing, flexible disposition in addressing the myriad problems of a diverse flock, the church grows steadily. Conversely, where there is a shortage of such benevolent, competent leadership, growth stalls and retention rates plummet. Leadership, in other words, is central to church viability and sustainability in emerging areas like Italy, a fact that church leaders have long recognized and sought to address through identifying, training, and developing local leadership.

In a church comprising many lay leaders with little or no prior training and experience, Latter-day Saint converts naturally adopted, as a default model, aspects of leadership that reflected their own personality, their experience growing up in the local culture, and human nature in general. For instance, there were challenges inherent in the transition from a Catholic style of worship, in which the focal point is the action of the priest who conducts the liturgy apart from and in behalf of the congregants, to an LDS model, in which a lay leader plays a somewhat more collaborative role overseeing a set of rituals in consort with the congregants. A history of more autocratic leadership in Italian politics may have also influenced the leadership ethos in early church units. One convert, echoing this theme, observed that, in some Mormon congregations, leadership centered in one man, as in the tradition of some Italian Catholic priests who “run the show and make the decisions. There is little concept of studying the issues, counseling with others, making suggestions, and bringing about change.”

Church members noted that with the advent of the program in the 1970s promoting Italianization and deemphasizing the role of foreign missionaries, the nature and quality of church leadership temporarily took on a more authoritarian approach to ministry. Unilateral decision making became more evident than common consent and collaboration:

I remember that during the early years of the church here in Italy, the LDS idea of priesthood was commonly misinterpreted. For many priesthood leaders, it meant that “I’m the head, so I command, I decide.” Fathers would say, “God has given me the priesthood. I receive the inspiration for the family. Now they must do what I say. My wife and children must blindly obey.” Priesthood wasn’t understood in the true sense of the word that it must be a power that is based on love, understanding, and service.

At times leaders showed a lack of discretion in dealing with sensitive matters and preferential treatment for family and friends that fostered ill will and disaffection within the church: “Sometimes Italian culture affects church relationships in negative ways: for example, leaders must learn to be impartial, even to friends—this is hard because of our Italian system of clientelismo: showing favoritism to close friends and family. In one case recently, a branch president left the church because his disciplinary decision was overturned by the district president, who was close friends with the man being disciplined.”

Even though Latter-day Saint scripture warns against the perils of abusing priesthood authority for personal aggrandizement and enjoins leaders to exercise power only with equanimity and compassion,[28] problems occasionally arose in emerging church units as the reality fell short of the ideal. Leadership sometimes devolved into a cult of personality, with loyalties and alliances of members arrayed for and against the presiding officer, and egos deeply invested in achieving and retaining church positions that were viewed as proprietary in nature. “Unrighteous dominion rather than common consent is a problem here in Italy,” according to one member. “Some church leaders lead like Mussolini, and so young people don’t give them trust. Some leaders want only power.” Another observer noted that church officials sometimes “exhibit a part of Italian culture that I don’t like–‘to make oneself seen’ [farsi notare]. Some leaders make a lot of beautiful speeches but not a lot of personal sacrifices.” The results, in many cases, were devastating for fledgling Church units trying to survive. In one instance, a convert reported, “when the president of our branch was excommunicated a while ago, most of the branch members left with him. It has taken years to recover.”

Some Italian converts also noted that Italianization of leadership changed the tone of personal and communal discourse during the first few decades of church growth. There was a subtle yet palpable shift toward a more stern approach in ministry, one that emphasized sin, guilt, and suffering rather than mercy, joy, and fulfillment.

Italian leaders sometimes exhibit an attitude of preaching and reproving those present for their sins. We need to be loved and encouraged, not reproved and made to feel guilty.

With Italian leaders . . . the gospel went from being something beautiful in all aspects of life to something more burdensome and an emphasis on suffering, guilt, and pain. Italian leaders make us feel guilty. We don’t need preaching about our faults and shortcomings. We can choose what we need to do when we are taught the beauty of gospel principles.

Concurrent with these changes, a more inflexible, literalist approach to interpretation and application of scripture, doctrine, and policy began to take hold. According to several converts, these were troubling developments that fostered strife and distrust among members:

Italian LDS leaders sometimes lacked vision; because of cultural reasons and style of leadership, they were too worried about secondary things. They were too rigid, bound by manuals and rules—focused on justice with little mercy.

In Switzerland I had a beard and long hair in church, and when I went to the Salt Lake Temple I had no problem entering to do baptisms. But when I came to Italy I was told I must cut my hair and beard to receive the priesthood. Leaders in Italy sometimes are very conservative and rigid in their interpretations of church teachings and policies.

The challenges associated with leadership stemmed not only from the personal styles and cultural paradigms exhibited by local leaders, but also from issues in the mission and church organization related to identifying, training, and supervising local leaders. Sometimes in the push for Italianization, missionaries were removed from leadership positions and replaced with converts who were inexperienced and immature. New leaders often received only cursory training in complex church procedures and leadership tasks like marriage counseling, working with youth, communication, interpersonal relations, and conflict management. Senior leaders at church headquarters, including Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, also lamented that church organization and leadership style had become too regimented and programmed.[29] Second, these developments during the second mission in Italy were common in other emerging church units. It was also a time of transition, recalibration, and adjustment elsewhere in Europe as the church’s missionary system was evolving internally while operating in a context of socioeconomic forces, similar to Italy’s, that was in constant flux. [30]

As time passed and Italian members matured in their understanding and application of Latter-day Saint teachings about ministry, the quality of Italian leadership improved significantly. Many women and men developed exemplary leadership abilities, teaching skills, and personal traits. “Current Italian leadership is patient, flexible, kind, but also morally strong,” one convert observed. “They love the youth.” Many of these leaders, she continued, “are from the early period of church growth.” An American mission president offered this assessment of Italian church leadership: “As church members, Italians are dedicated, intelligent, and capable in their service. . . . I was stunned after arriving in Italy by the leadership ability, strong work ethic, and good education of the church members. If all the American church leaders went home tomorrow, the church would be in good hands—the Italians would do just fine without us.” Clearly, leadership evolved and improved, and yet issues surrounding quality and style of leadership continued to color the nature of the Italian church experience, contributing in both positive and negative ways to its uniqueness and shedding light on the challenges inherent in attracting and retaining converts.

Family bonds and loyalty: a double-edged sword. Italian society has long been characterized by its tightly knit family networks and patriarchal structure. Due to a state of nearly continual political and economic turmoil over the past several centuries, Italians have tended to place their trust in family and kinship ties rather than in unreliable, often foreign government authorities and institutions to find some semblance of security and stability in their lives. Paul Ginsborg has found that the changes wrought in Italian society during the “economic miracle” of the 1950s and ’60s reinforced the strength of the family: “Indeed, the family became the basic unit for satisfying needs in contemporary Italy. Italy’s modernization, as so many others, was not based on collective responsibility or collective action, but on the opportunities it afforded individual families to transform their lives.”[31] Scholars term the kind of double morality that emerged in Italian society “amoral familism,” meaning that one does “everything possible in legal ways, but if necessary resorting to means that are marginally legal, to maintain and protect one’s own family.”[32]

Many Italian converts cited the LDS Church’s strong emphasis on the family as the basis for personal fulfillment and well-being as central to what attracted them to Mormonism. The focus on genealogy and temple work, designed to strengthen family units and bind them together for eternity, also has had special resonance for Italian converts who have especially high esteem for temples, where these family-focused activities are centered.

But many members also revealed that the influence of family values is a double-edged sword that cuts two ways, both facilitating and hindering church growth. “The family is very unified in Italy,” explained one member, “and this is a plus and a minus for the LDS Church. It doesn’t leave room for much freedom of action.” The adverse impact of kinship loyalty on two of the church’s main retention programs was explored earlier. Converts and church leaders cited numerous other examples of how the traditional family and patriarchal structure of Italian society represents a countervailing force that has prevented the conversion of many investigators and undermined the ongoing involvement of those who did convert. Even after baptism, many converts reported that family members who opposed their joining another church continued to exert pressure to recant, to avoid attending meetings and activities, and to reconsider their “reckless” and “impetuous” decision to flout family loyalty in favor of embracing a “foreign” faith.

It was not uncommon for converts to receive an ultimatum from family members opposed to their flouting of patriarchal authority: “From when we chose to accept the gospel, my parents said, ‘You and we will not have any more relationship.’ And from that point on, our parents and siblings have never come to visit us.” One astute observer provided a possible rationale: “The family is a strong institution here. However, the basic premises provided by the gospel of Jesus Christ are lacking in many families that are kept in line only by adherence to strong patriarchal authority in the real sense of the word. The patriarch commands like a dictator in many cases. Therefore, if this patriarch doesn’t accept the church, he could prohibit his family members from accepting it. This is a problem for many in Italy.” Another informant felt that many converts, if their conviction is strong, “can weather a lot of storms” in the conversion process. But even in families that joined the church together, when problems become “more of a family matter,” the results can be devastating to church growth and retention. If the patriarch of the family “takes offense at something that may have started as a social thing, he is gone tomorrow, and he takes the whole family with him. We have here in [this branch] numerous families like this who are all gone, who went inactive together.”

Persistence of Catholic religious culture. As suggested in the Rambo-Farhadian model of religious change, the transformation in lifestyle, thought, and behavior that converts experience is incremental in nature—not a once-and-for-all event—continuing well beyond baptism as they gradually learn to negotiate and adapt to uncharted religious waters. This implies that initiates do not shed their former spiritual persona immediately and completely; rather, they bring to the new encounter an array of deeply engrained attitudes, assumptions, and folkways that have heretofore provided meaning and direction in life. It is only natural, then, that during the ongoing transition from one religious identity to another a certain amount of confusion and strain will arise as former habits collide with new imperatives.

The Italian experience is replete with examples that illustrate the dilemmas confronting both converts and Mormon officials as they struggle to sort through whether or not some aspects of Catholic tradition are congruent with LDS identity and worship. Thus, the persistence of Catholic culture in LDS life sometimes created conflict, adversely impacting convert retention and the cohesion of newly emerging church units.

Various church leaders spoke of the importance of local religious festivals and customs that play an integral role in Italian culture, reinforcing unity among families and communities and strengthening regional and national identity. In some cases, LDS converts continued to attend and participate in these Catholic-based observances either because they were unable or unwilling to distinguish the fine line between religion and culture, or more commonly, because they felt that the religious observance was spiritually harmless, socially and emotionally beneficial, and important to one’s cultural identity.

One church leader mentioned an active church member being observed downtown at a religious festival, praying in front of the statue of Padre Pio (a popular Catholic priest, since canonized and widely venerated in Italy).[33] He commented that perhaps some converts “are taking these customs as cultural things” but that there was also “a tendency not to have left behind old religious traditions.” He also described an Italian church leader and his wife, baptized thirty years before, who still participated in the city’s Easter festival when they brought the statues of Giovanni Battista and the Madonna into the square. “I don’t know whether there’s any spiritual significance, but they felt tied to it. It was very special to them.”

These examples illustrate a fundamental feature of missionary outreach that is not unique to Italy. Throughout the international church, converts engage in a natural process of cultural negotiation to reconcile their roles in society with their new religious identity. Latin American Mormons, according to one study, continue to experience “significant social pressure” to participate in Catholic rituals.[34] A study in Japan found that church members generally did not consider their participation in traditional Shinto, Buddhist, and Confucian rituals as religious behavior that conflicted with Latter-day Saint practice. Indeed, “many Latter-day Saints continued to participate in Japanese traditions even after they had been members for many years”—it was their way of showing friends and family “that it was possible to be a member of an American religion and still remain Japanese.”[35]

The early decades of church growth in Italy witnessed the emergence of some heterodox teachings, rituals, and procedures that could be traced to the lingering effects of Catholic religious culture in the Mormon community. Although church authorities publish a detailed handbook of instructions to promote uniformity of doctrine, ritual, and practice in communal worship, church members commonly put their own stamp on these official prescriptions, interpreting them in light of their cultural instincts and religious upbringing. For former Catholics, accustomed to a closely scripted, ceremonial form of liturgical worship centered in the actions of the priest, exposure to the less formal style of Mormon worship offered both opportunities and challenges. Many converts found that the involvement of congregants in worship services—men, women, youth, and children—constituted a refreshing departure from what they viewed as the stolidity of tradition and afforded a new level of fulfillment through participation in giving sermons, administering the sacrament, performing musical numbers, and other activities.

However, some Catholic attitudes and impulses inevitably crept into LDS practice, subtly shaping the dynamics of communal rituals and relationships. Church members pointed out anomalies in LDS procedure that reflect a certain tension between the Catholic focus on preeminence of priestly action and the Mormon ethos of participatory worship. In some church units, for example, members of the congregation were not allowed to handle the trays containing the sacralized emblems of bread and water during the central ritual of Sunday worship—the administration of the sacrament. Instead, only the young men of the Aaronic Priesthood could hold the trays, presenting them to each individual congregant rather than (according to more common practice) allowing each person to handle the tray, take the bread or water, and pass the tray down the row to the next person.

Some converts took offense at the comparatively boisterous, free-wheeling atmosphere that often reins inside LDS chapels, creating contention with other converts who enjoyed the more casual, spontaneous approach to worship. One long-time church member described, with obvious angst, the resulting problem: “Comings and goings during the church service. In and out. Up and down. [Members] don’t hesitate to get up, go talk to a brother over here, a sister over there. . . . [Some] go out for a few minutes, come back in, sit back up at the front, which they don’t need to do.” Others noted that a balanced approach to maintaining a reverent atmosphere was needed, one that shows tolerance for differing views and behavior. These comments reflect the complex and often contentious dynamic that characterizes the ongoing effort to blend an inherited cultural identity with an emerging LDS identity among converts.

Transition to a high-demand religion. The prevalent style of worship in Italy that contrasts with the expectations and norms of Latter-day Saint religious life also emerged as a factor that influences retention rates. Some aspects of Catholic culture (e.g., its deeply rooted religious customs and attitudes, hierarchical style of church leadership, and less participatory model of worship) naturally migrate with converts to the LDS community, shaping the delicate interplay of relationships, roles, and expectations among members and influencing levels of participation and satisfaction.

Both prospective converts and new converts have sometimes found it difficult to embrace and maintain the LDS style of affiliation that involves a high cost in terms of personal time, means, and behavioral change.[36] The LDS lifestyle—involving (among other things) attendance at meetings several times weekly; a 10 percent tithe on annual income; abstinence from alcohol, coffee, and tobacco; and fellowshipping visits to the homes of other members—represents a difficult transformation for many Italians.

In the estimation of many Mormon converts, a high-demand religion is alien to Italian experience: “There are too many sacrifices in the church for most Italians,” one church leader opined. Another member pointed to the prevailing religious tradition that “teaches people to sit and listen passively, not be actively engaged” as a major stumbling block to Mormon growth. Another shared his theory that, because of their Catholic background, “Italians are used to a religion that asks very little of them—only to attend mass on Sunday,” whereas the LDS Church “asks a lot, but gives a lot in return”—an aspect of Mormonism that attracts some converts. In a historically homogeneous religious culture that “makes salvation easy,” requirements like the Word of Wisdom or paying tithing scare away many potential converts. An LDS family talked about “close friends who are not members of the church but who have come to meetings several times. They consider our principles to be good and correct. But it is the commitment required by the church that frightens them and keeps them from joining.”

The reality of Catholic political influence and religious culture, in addition to other issues in the conversion process such as the relative merits of new religious doctrines and the often difficult transition from one social network to another, helps explain why the vast majority of those who investigate the Church choose not to be baptized and why two-thirds of those who do convert are unable or unwilling to sustain this high level of religious commitment over the long term.

Conversion and Retention among Italian Converts

This research among Italian Mormons illustrates the complex nature of conversion and retention—the interplay of personal proclivities, spiritual and temporal motives, social pressures, and institutional strengths and weaknesses that influence church growth over time. Mormonism appealed to spiritual seekers who were experiencing inner turmoil and crises of various kinds—Italians who were dissatisfied with traditional religion, searching for moral clarity during periods of social upheaval, or seeking alternative paths to fulfillment. Many flouted social stigmas, endured opprobrium, and made difficult lifestyle adjustments to embrace a “foreign” religion because they were impressed by Latter-day Saint teachings about the personal nature of God, the meaning of existence, the focus on creating strong bonds of friendship and family, and the opportunity for self-improvement through service and lay leadership. The minority of converts—one out of three—who stayed actively involved in the church assessed the tensions created by their conversion and concluded that the benefits of church membership outweighed the social costs. Factors such as deep personal conviction about the efficacy of Mormon teachings, the warmth and support of the new religious community, an ability to preserve good relations with family and friends over time, and Italy’s increasingly tolerant religious milieu—all contributed over time to their capacity to adapt successfully to the challenges of a new religious community and to adopt a new religious identity that shaped their lives and worldviews in profound ways.

Another general observation about members who managed to surmount difficult hurdles and remain observant is that the appeal of Mormon teachings tended to be paramount in the initial decision to convert; after baptism, however, social relationships within the church became increasingly influential in determining rates of activity. In congregations where there was warmth, acceptance, and a new network of friends, converts tended to flourish and stay involved; but where this nurturing environment was lacking and converts instead continually encountered cliques, bad examples, incompetent leadership, and social alienation, they were prone to drop out—often while still retaining positive feelings about Mormon life and doctrine.

While studying aspects of Mormonism that promote or hinder long-term church planting, a paradox emerged. Some features of Latter-day Saint religion—an emphasis on family, a lay clergy, a participatory style of worship, and a highly organized church structure—proved to be attractive and problematic: they were identified by converts as major reasons both for remaining active and for dropping out, depending on an individual’s personal experience and on circumstances that varied from one congregation to another over time. In a family-centered society, the church’s focus on family unity carried significant appeal, but pressure exerted by a close-knit, patriarchal family structure often adversely impacted decisions about converting or remaining active. Some converts were attracted to a Church that provided opportunities for self-improvement through service and leadership in the religious community. Others eventually left the community because they could not adjust to the downside of lay leadership and high-cost religion: leaders who at times (especially early in the mission) were ill-prepared and authoritarian in style, and church callings that produced feelings of discouragement and burnout from ministering to the heavy spiritual, emotional, and financial demands of fellow congregants.

A salient feature of the church—strong organization and management—promoted growth by supplying a steady stream of missionaries, curriculum materials, financial support, and other resources to support emerging church units in Italy. Its organizational capacity was crucial in mobilizing public affairs as well as humanitarian and interfaith efforts to raise the public profile of Mormonism and to foster political and religious alliances that paved the way to legal recognition and temple construction. But the church’s managerial approach also seemed an uncomfortable fit in Italy, creating tension and disaffection among a significant number of converts who struggled to adjust to a high volume of meetings, reports, and tasks and to an administrative structure that—in spite of some reforms designed to simplify and decentralize decision making—remained too inflexible and insensitive to the ideas, needs, and time constraints of local members.

Some developments within the church bode well for Mormonism’s future in Italy and the rest of Europe. The emergence of a second, third, and even fourth generation of members and leaders has aided greatly in stabilizing and implanting the church on a firmer footing. Serving at the local and, increasingly, international levels of church governance, there is a growing cadre of seasoned leaders who understand both the operation of the international church and the challenges that local congregations and converts face. Their presence and expertise has facilitated decision making in culturally congruent ways and helped dispel stereotypes about the “otherness” of Mormonism by providing a European face for the church. During the past decade important institutional reforms intended to simplify and decentralize church administration and to strengthen conversion and retention rates have been put into place. A churchwide campaign, referred to sometimes as “The Rescue,” was launched in 2011 to increase conversion, retention, and activation rates by implementing more effectively principles outlined in Preach My Gospel and the church’s Handbook. This included a renewed emphasis on the pivotal role of ward and branch councils in solving local problems and in unifying the efforts of members and missionaries to effectively prepare and integrate new converts. In 2013, a major revamping of the teaching curriculum for the youth of the church was initiated, featuring less prescription of standardized teaching material and more autonomy for teachers and students in teaching classes and identifying topics for discussion.

Concerning the question of why people convert and why they drop out, there was no shortage of opinions among Italian members. One church leader expressed the view—variations of which we encountered on numerous occasions—that converts fall into several categories: “those who join for the economic benefits that they think exist, like financial help or getting a visa to the US; those who join for the social benefits, such as friendship with missionaries and members; and those who join because they have an inner conviction—a testimony—of the truth of the restored gospel.” In his opinion, converts in the first two categories tended to lapse into inactivity sooner or later, while those in the latter category remained committed and involved over the long term.

While this point of view about why converts stay or leave is not without some merit, it oversimplifies and distorts the complex reality surrounding religious change. As we have seen, a constellation of personal motives, social forces, and internal church dynamics are at play as spiritual seekers weigh options in the religious marketplace, and most converts make a multifaceted decision based on innate human needs for meaning in life, group affiliation, and physical and economic well-being. And, once the decision to embrace a new religious community is made, the process of seeking and weighing religious experience continues, with some converts maintaining their new identity and many others either withdrawing to some degree or dropping out completely. Explaining disaffiliation primarily in terms of personal defects—weakness, insincerity, materialism, poor parenting, or lack of faith or conviction—fosters complacency and inability to examine the deeper recesses of the problem, identify challenges outside and inside the church, and work out viable solutions.


[1] Lewis R. Rambo and Charles E. Farhadian, “Converting: Stages of Religious Change,” in Religious Conversion: Contemporary Practices and Controversies, ed. Christopher Lamb and M. Darrol Bryant (London: Cassell, 1999), 32.

[2] See, for example, Stark and Finke, chap. 5, “Religious Choices: Conversion and Reaffiliation,” in Acts of Faith, 114–38; Henri Gooren, Religious Conversion and Disaffiliation: Tracing Patterns of Change in Faith Practices (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Jeremy E. Uecker, Mark D. Regnerus, and Margaret L. Vaaler, “Losing My Religion: The Social Sources of Religious Decline in Early Adulthood,” Social Forces 85, no. 4 (2007): 1667–92; Wilfried Decoo, “Feeding the Fleeing Flock: Reflections on the Struggle to Retain Church Members in Europe,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29, no. 1 (1996): 97–118; Decoo, “In Search of Mormon Identity: Mormon Culture, Gospel Culture, and an American Worldwide Church,” International Journal of Mormon Studies 6 (2013): 1–53; Decoo, “Mormons in Europe,” in The Oxford Handbook to Mormonism, ed. Philip Barlow and Terryl Givens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming); Jiro Numano, “Perseverance amid Paradox: The Struggle of the LDS Church in Japan Today,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 39, no. 4 (2006): 138–55; Howard M. Bahr and Stan L. Albrecht, “Strangers Once More: Patterns of Disaffiliation from Mormonism,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28, no. 2 (1989): 180–200.

[3] Tim B. Heaton, “Vital Statistics,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1527; David G. Stewart, The Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work (Henderson, NV: Cumorah Foundation, 2007), 36–37; Wilfried Decoo, “Issues in Writing European History and in Building the Church in Europe,” Journal of Mormon History 23, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 164.

[4] Kristen Moulton, “LDS Membership Growth Stable; Slight Improvement Predicted for Convert Retention,” Salt Lake Tribune, 29 March 2011, http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/lifestyle/51497153-80/church-growth-says-martinich.html.csp; Peter Henderson and Kristina Cooke, “Special Report: Mormonism Besieged by the Modern Age,” Reuters, 30 January 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/30/us-mormonchurch-idUSTRE80T1CM20120130.

[5] Rick Phillips, “Rethinking the International Expansion of Mormonism,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 10, no. 1 (August 2006): 52–68; Knowlton, “How Many Members Are There Really?,” 53–78.

[6] Lowell C. “Ben” Bennion and Lawrence Young, “The Uncertain Dynamics of LDS Expansion, 1950–2020,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 28; Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd, “Membership Growth, Church Activity, and Missionary Recruitment,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 48–52.

[7] Stewart, The Law of the Harvest, 56, 59.

[8] Electa Draper, “LDS Scholars: Mormon Moment Could Expand into Cultural Shift,” Denver Post, 26 December 2012, http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_22247809/lds-scholars-mormon-moment-could-expand-into-cultural; Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Keeping Members a Challenge for LDS Church,” Salt Lake Tribune, 26 July 2005, http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=2890645&itype=NGPSID; Stephanie Long, “News of the Church,” Ensign, June 2007, 75–80.

[9] M. Russell Ballard, quoted in Long, “News of the Church,” Ensign, June 2007, 76.

[10] Heaton, “Vital Statistics,” 1527. Some studies have concluded, however, that this spectrum of activity primarily characterizes the Church in the United States, where social networks are stronger for members: “Through publications, interviews, and blogs, ‘marginal’ American Mormons now try to claim their place in a more diverse Mormonism. Elsewhere, nearly all ‘inactive’ members are really and permanently ‘out,’ as analysis confirms.” Wilfried Decoo, “Sacrifice and Retention: An Unsolvable Dilemma?” Times and Seasons (blog), 1 May 2012, http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2012/05/sacrifice-and-retention-an-unsolvable-dilemma/.

[11] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep,” Ensign, May 1999, 104–7; see also Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 213–14.

[12] M. Russell Ballard, “Members Are the Key,” Ensign, September 2000, https://www.lds.org/ensign/ 2000/09/members-are-the-key?lang=eng.

[13] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Role of Members in Conversion,” Ensign, March 2003, https://www.lds.org/ensign/ 2003/03/the-role-of-members-in-conversion?lang=eng.

[14] On conversion/retention issues in Europe, see, for example, Walter E. A. van Beek, “Ethnization and Accommodation: Dutch Mormons in Twenty-first Century Europe,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 119–27; Christian Euvrard, Socio-Histoire du Mormonisme en France—Thèse de doctorat (Paris: École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, 2008); Wilfried Decoo, “In Search of Mormon Identity: Mormon Culture, Gospel Culture, and an American Worldwide Church,” International Journal of Mormon Studies 6 (2013): 1–53; Wilfried; Decoo, “Mormons in Europe,” in The Oxford Handbook to Mormonism, ed. Terryl L. Givens and Philip L. Barlow (New York: Oxford, forthcoming); Wilfried Decoo, “Mormons in Europe,” in The Oxford Handbook to Mormonism, “Sacrifice and Retention: An Unsolvable Dilemma?” Times and Seasons, May 1, 2012, timesandseasons.org/index.php/2012/05/sacrifice-and-retention-an-unsolvable-dilemma; and Armand L. Mauss, “Can There Be a ‘Second Harvest’?: Controlling the Costs of Latter-day Saint Membership in Europe,” British Journal of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 1–63.

[15] Phillips, “Rethinking the International Expansion of Mormonism,” 53–58; Stewart, The Law of the Harvest, 55.

[16] Numano, “Mormonism in Modern Japan,” 226, 233; Hoffmann and Morgan, “Japanese Members of the LDS Church: A Qualitative View,” 402–20; and Wilfred Decoo, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29, no. 1 (1996): “Feeding the Fleeing Flock,” 100–101, 109.

[17] Boyd K. Packer, “Concluding Remarks,” 2010 Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, http://www.lds.org/ broadcasts/article/print/worldwide-leadership-training/2010/11/concluding-remarks?lang=eng.

[18] See Administering the Church at http://www.lds.org/manual/handbook.

[19] See Decoo, “Feeding the Fleeing Flock,” 113, on home-teaching challenges in Europe and why visits are sometimes viewed as invasions of privacy.

[20] See, for example, Ginsborg, Italy and Its Discontents, chapter 3, “Families and Consumption”; Gian Carlo Blangiardo and Stefania Rimoldi “Portraits of the Italian Family: Past, Present and Future,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 45, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 201–19.

[21] See, for example, Morris Petersen, “Fossils and Scripture,” Ensign, September 1987, 28; William E. Evenson and Duane E. Jeffery, Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements (Salt Lake City: Kofford Books, 2005); and David H. Bailey, “Science and Mormonism: Past, Present, and Future,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 80–96.

[22] Wilfried Decoo to James Toronto, email, 3 November 2012.

[23] Michelle Boorstein, “Struggling Mormons Find Online Support,” Washington Post, republished in Daily Herald, 26 May 2012, A1–2; Peter Henderson and Kristina Cooke, “Special Report: Mormonism Besieged by the Modern Age,” Reuters, 30 January 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/30/us-mormonchurch-idUSTRE80T1CM20120130.

[24] Boorstein, “Struggling Mormons Find Online Support,” A2.

[25] Henderson and Cooke, “Special Report.”

[26] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep,” Ensign, May 1999, 104–7; see also Preach My Gospel, 213–14.

[27] This is a major impediment to conversion and retention outside of Italy too. One church official cited the problem of overcoming addictions as “an extremely important but widely neglected need of investigators and new members.” Dallin H. Oaks, “The Role of Members in Conversion,” Ensign, March 2003, 52–58.

[28] See Doctrine and Covenants 121:34–46.

[29] Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 206.

[30] See, for example, Jörg Dittberner, “One Hundred Eighteen Years of Attitude: The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Free and Hanseatic City of Bremen,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 51–69. Wilfried Decoo described the situation of leadership, growth, and retention in Belgium as “identical” to that of Italy. Email to author, 1 September 2014.

[31] Paul Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943–1988 (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 342.

[32] Marino Livolsi, ed., L’Italia Che Cambia (Scandicci, Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1993), 6.

[33] Since his canonization in 2002, he is known as Saint Pio of Pietrelcina.

[34] David Clark Knowlton, “How Many Members Are There Really? Two Censuses and the Meaning of LDS Membership in Chile and Mexico,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 38, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 59.

[35] John P. Hoffmann and Charlie V. Morgan, “Japanese Members of the LDS Church: A Qualitative View,” in Taking the Gospel to the Japanese, 1901 to 2001, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Van C. Gessel (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2006), 413, 417.

[36] Armand Mauss points out that the costs are greater in many ways for European converts than for members in the United States. See Mauss, “Can There Be a ‘Second Harvest’?”