Investigator? Really? Is that the best you can do?

Written by Aileen

Aileen is a frequent commenter and erstwhile Seattleite.

It was two years ago this December, my youngest, our fourth, had just been born. I was returning to the rituals of sitting on the couch every 2 hours to feed his hungry mouth. This was a pattern I knew well. Book in hand, boppy pillow and baby, I plopped down. The book that started this babe’s ritual with me was Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. You may know it. I didn’t. The cover caught my eye with promises of homicide and religion – the makings of a good story – but, better yet, it was true. I was fascinated.

I devoured it in about a week. The story kept me interested, but what really held me was learning about Mormonism (don’t flame me yet – I now understand there is a difference between LDS and FLDS, but I didn’t “get it” then). Until then, I really knew nothing about the LDS religion. Nothing. I don’t think I had ever met a Mormon before.

At the same time, December 2006, Mitt Romney’s name was already out there. He may have already announced his intention to run for President. I can’t recall exactly. What I remember is this, thinking to myself, are you kidding me? I can’t vote for him (I’m registered Republican); he wears this weird underwear that he is required to wear, and really, if his Church tells him what to wear under his clothes, how do I know, as a voter, that someday he isn’t going to listen to his Prophet against all reason. I felt an immediate distrust of him. Plus, the every hair in place, cheesy smile, and perfect family, well, it all just seemed a little creepy to me. Have I offended you yet? I really hope not. I’m just trying to be honest here.

So, I set out on a journey to educate myself, because frankly, after having met one honest-to-goodness Saint, and her family (shortly after finishing Krakauer’s book), you all seem pretty normal to me. Maybe a little too happy, but that could be due to my small representative sampling.
I like to consider myself educated. I know, I know, right about now you’re thinking, “Really?” But lest you doubt me, know that I have successfully completed too many years of higher education at an esteemed place of higher learning. I practiced law for 6 years, mostly as a criminal prosecutor handling felony cases (drugs, rapes, child sex abuse, domestic violence, and 1 juvie homicide). Which leads me to this (finally), the topic of my post. Your term “investigator”? It needs re-working.
Why exactly am I an “investigator” if I am trying to learn more about your religion? Why, if I am a potential convert, am I an “investigator”? Because, let me tell you, that term, to me, has a lot of negative connotations associated with it. In other words, “I’m trying to check you out because there’s something fishy going on.” No one says “Let’s go investigate” about a good thing. Rather, it’s always about something suspicious. Something gone wrong. Something that needs uncovering (in a bad way, not a good way). Police “investigate.” Potential religious converts, or simply those looking for more information, should not be “investigators.”

I hear from various LDS blogs and various LDS people (I now know more than 1) about people’s mis-impressions of the LDS faith and its members. Your Elders have both written on it and spoken about it. Get out there, they tell you. Spread the word. Let everyone see how normal we are. Put out the right information or else everyone will just take all the misinformation as truth. All good advice. But then you go and put the term “investigator” on people who are willing to let you in, willing to listen to you and willing to explore your faith. Bad advice.

So, where do this term and your faith intersect? Where did the practice start? I have no idea (that’s where you come in…). I checked my Preach My Gospel (it was a gift from a friend, probably because she tired of all my questions), and there it is, “investigator.” Introduction, first page. No definition, no reference. Why? Well, because of course, the term is so widely used in your LDS religion and its practice, that the term needs no other definition. It is merely accepted. And that is a problem, I think, in the impression you leave with the “non-peculiar world.” By calling us “investigators,” you separate us, instead of trying to include us. You differentiate yourselves as “something to be investigated,” which as I indicated earlier, is never a good thing.

Detectives investigate. Police officers investigate. Investigative reporters investigate. The FLDS Church is being investigated. And what do they all have in common? Someone is attempting to “uncover,” find the “truth,” but not in your Truth-Seeking-Gospel-is-the-Way-Truth, but rather in the someone-is-hiding-the-truth way. The term “Investigators” does your LDS faith a great disservice because the term implies a deception which someone is attempting to uncover. It is off-putting.
I have found that your Church leaders are very concerned with nomenclature. There is a whole page, several paragraphs long, on the website on how to refer to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. How to write the Church’s name the first time, what is appropriate in further recitations, and what not to say or write. And gosh-forbid someone refers to mainstream LDS as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Names are important. They set the tone. They tell you something. You have your “Elders” and your “Sisters.”

So, really, is “investigator” the best you can do?

You should know that I don’t have any other great suggestions, I only note that as far as I know, other religions do not feel the need to classify people who ask questions. Maybe I’m wrong on that, but I’ve only ever heard the LDS religion refer to “investigators.” Why exactly do I have to have a category as a name? Can’t I just be Aileen? And if you must, what’s wrong with “potential converts”? It seems to cover it without all the negative connotations and setting oneself apart that comes with “investigator.”

Yours is a great religion to get to know. More people should give you a chance. Perhaps you should start by giving those who come to you with questions a more appropriate name. It may go a long way towards relationships versus suspicions. But maybe it’s so ingrained that it would be too hard to change; we’ll always be investigators. And with that thinking, Mormons will always be the ones with the weird underwear.

Post Script: I voted for Romney in my state’s primary. I displayed his button on my blog. I put a sticker on my car. Now I pray that he is chosen by McCain as his running mate. [Ed– tough luck] I think Mitt Romney would make a fine President. Undergarments and all.


  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    Good point.

    “Maybe a little too happy, but that could be due to my small representative sampling.”

    Ah-ha! Just the justification I was looking for! Now I can claim that my grumpiness makes investigators . . . or, ah, whatever we’re going to call them . . . feel more at ease.

  2. Eric Russell says:

    Aileen, it may not be the best word, but I don’t see a better one. In the frequent discussions of missionary work that goes on both in training as well as within the church, there is a great need for a word that describes the set of all people who are looking into the church. There does have to be some word.

    “Potential convert” could work, but we generally think of everyone as potential converts. If “investigator” were switched with “potential convert” it would frequently have to be explained that the speaker referred specifically to potential converts who are looking into the church, and not potential converts out on the street. The confusion would significantly reduce any potential benefit gained from the shift in terminology.

  3. Interesting stuff, investigator. Aileen. :-)

    Another question might be whether there should be distinct terms for someone who wants to learn more about the religion in a purely detached, informational way (say for example a reporter who has just been assigned to report on LDS issues) and someone who really is a potential convert. Though we’d probably like to classify everyone as potential convert!

    Maybe the idea behind the term investigator was trying to be not making too many assumptions about whether the person will really join, as an attempt to be polite. In other words, trying to respect the person’s agency to join or not join. “Potential convert” might seem pushy in that sense. You’re absolutely right about the connotation that something sketchy is going on though.

  4. I couldn’t agree more: “investigator” has got to go. If it makes you feel any better, my gggg grandfather called his potential converts “strangers” in his mission journals circa 1870. I think investigator is a step up from stranger. Maybe we can move on to Friend or Interested Party or Aileen.

  5. Hmmm, I never thought that “investigator” was weird, and I joined the Church at 19. I agree with Cynthia L. that I always thought it avoided the pushiness of “possible convert.”

    I wonder if your association with the word has something to do with your career? Because I DO use “investigate” as fairly neutral–I am getting my PhD in English and I use “investigate” when I talk about my research, etc. Honestly, I picture a bunch of kids going on an adventure when I hear that word. But, I might be very, very odd.

    I am not trying to say you are wrong, just giving you the other side of the coin.

  6. “Stranger” goes way, way back to distinguish between church members (whatever the church in question) and non-members — the hired seamen on the Mayflower, for instance, were Strangers, distinguishing them from Pilgrims.

    “Potential convert” would send a lot of, uh, potential converts screaming out of the house. “I thought I was just going with my friend to a party, and now they think they’re going to convert me!”

    “Investigator” goes back to at least the first years of the 20th century, when people looking into the church’s claims really did think they were investigating something bad, just as Aileen describes its connotation.

    “Friend” is at least as old, used in missionary correspondence to refer to what we now call “investigators” and anybody else who tolerated us, including boarding house keepers, newspaper editors, and ministers of other faiths who would let the elders use their chapels for services.

    I think “friend” would work now, and be just as specific as “investigator” since we no longer use it for those other friendly types. Yeah, “friend.” I could get behind that.

  7. “Friend” is a good one, Ardis; in France we still called em “Amis de l’Eglise.”

  8. I never thought “investigate” was strange. “Proselytize,” strange (and hard to spell.) “Tracting,” doubly strange. But “investigate,” a verb in common usage… not strange. “Potential convert” assumes too much and there’s nothing left but “visitor” and “Gentile,” both of which are even more problematic. It doesn’t really help that most Christian churches in the West are assuming that the only people about whom this would be an issue are a) already believers in nearly everything relevant to daily worship, b) aware of and comfortable with whatever (minor) cultural differences they might encounter, c) physically present at some kind of gathering/worship service, and d) mostly there to judge the food/sermon/fellowship/ architecture/neighborhood anyway.

    Of course I’ve never had the term applied to me; my mom wasn’t so much an investigator as an “Impatient Why Haven’t The Missionaries Shown Up To Baptize Me Already”-er, and I was five years old at the time — and my dad is as close to “anti” as someone who just wishes everyone’d shut up about religion already can possibly be (he doesn’t slam doors on missionaries out of respect for my sensitivities.) And I don’t generally use it, because I’ve never been a missionary and wouldn’t share the Gospel with a stranger if I was coerced, let alone voluntarily — and friends don’t need labels. ^_^

  9. Great post. I’m with you on the semantics. Some of the words do seem strange.
    However, there are situations where there are no words.
    I had a RS pres who introduced a woman once as a “Temple Recommend Holder.” to indicated that although her daughter was inactive, she was active. I was very embarrassed on her behalf.

  10. Thanks, Aileen. This is a thought-provoking post, and I had not considered it previously. I probably will share this with our Stake Missionary Committee in our next meeting.

    I like friends. (I also like the term “friends”.)

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    I wondered whether proselyte (as a noun) might work, since we use that word as a verb in our lexicon already. Unfortunately, the word has the connotation of one who has already converted. It means “newcomer, convert” in the sense of one who has newly arrived. So that doesn’t work.

    I agree that investigator is problematic. But we absolutely have to have a way of talking intelligetnly about that class of people.

    There is a lot of PC movement related to vocabulary in the Church: nonmember is passe, it’s less active rather than inactive, moral agency has supplanted free agency, and so forth. If we can succeed in coming up with a good substitute, there is a decent chance a campaign to deep six “investigator” would work. But we’ve got to come up with the substitute term for this to work.

  12. Yes, I remember when I heard someone mention the investigator, meaning me, I thought briefly that potential converts had to have background checks and they were assigned an investigator to make sure they would make good members before we were allowed to join. (laughs) I was relieved when I found out they meant me as in someone investigating the church. =)

    I do agree that the word has bad connotations. A better one would probably catch on if we came up with one and started using it consistently. Calling an investigator a friend is somewhat presumptuous, I think. Maybe they just want to know about the church right now, and aren’t interested in making friends. Couldn’t we find another word with the denotation of “investigator” but with more neutral connotations? How about LDS-curious? =P

  13. Our stake has been using the phrase “friends of other faiths” quite a bit lately, but it is used primarily when talking about inviting neighbors to larger Church functions rather than meeting with the missionaries.

    What about “student?” As in (when sitting in a missionary meeting), “we met Jane Doe last week and she has decided to become a student of the Gospel.” Cause really, that is what they are doing–learning about the Church. That is different, to me, than a “friend” of the Church–other church or political leaders that support us but aren’t necessarily learning about us.

  14. Tatiana, that’s funny.

  15. I was Matt to most of the members before I evr heard the term “Investigator”. I did think it was a weird term, as I didn’t really think of myself as investigating the church, since I didn’t really see myself that interested in joining the church. But I didn’t worry about it. But it did stick in the back of my mind and reminded me, later, when I was more interested in the church, that it wasn’t just a willy nilly experience and I really did need to investigate the church before I joined.

    So in my view, it’s a pretty good term.

  16. How about this:

    “investigators and those who don’t feel comfortable being called investigators”

    We could shorten it and call them:

    “investigators and Aileens” :)

  17. Jim Donaldson says:

    Actually, there was a time, maybe 20 years ago, when we were strongly discouraged from using the word investigator for the all the reasons mentioned here. That was the time the Investigator’s Class became Gospel Essentials.

    But as everybody has noted, we couldn’t come up with one word to replace it and everybody was trying. So “investigator” crept back into common usage, notwithstanding all of the encouragement not to use it. After a while, we all just gave up.

    But kept the Gospel Essentials class.

    I’m sure that the brethren would gladly adopt something new if anybody could think of something that wouldn’t cause even more eye-rolling.

  18. I’m with you Aileen. I first heard the term whem I was a missionary, and I hated it immediately. I never used it and I especially cringed when companions would use it when introducing people to church members. It just sounds so wrong.

    Then I got a companion from the south who called everyone we were teaching “gators.” That was so much worse that I stopped complaining about “investigator.”

  19. We don’t object to being investigated, even from a starting position of suspicion, provided it’s an honest investigation, the kind that that can either clear or convict someone based on what turns up as evidence. In fact, we invite it, which is why we use the term.
    We do object to “fishing expeditions”, the kind intended only to find dirt to support a predetermined conclusion.
    It’s unfortunate that the term “investigator” or “investigation” has acquired a hostile connotation, but any other term intended to convey an honest, fair inquiry would quickly acquire the same negative connotations from abuse by people who want the appearance of honesty and fairness, whether or not they actually are.

  20. My parents both served missions in Canada in the late-1940s. If I remember correctly, they referred to the people they taught as “contacts.” I wonder how widespread that term was.

    It avoids some of the negative things about “investigator” that Aileen points out, but the word now has meanings that it didn’t have in the mid-20th century (those things you stick in your eyes to improve your vision).

    I like “students.”

  21. Thomas Parkin says:

    I kind of like ‘stranger.’

    Me investigating the church.
    Member: everyone, this is Tom, he’s a stranger!
    Me: Indeed!

    I like ‘students’, too. Although since we all should be students you’d need to distinguish the unbaptized student. How about ‘unwashed.’ Kind of in the direction of ‘gentile’ or the preferable ‘heathen’, but even more so.

    Everyone, please welcome Jim this evening, he is unwashed.


  22. James McMurray says:

    I vote for “Inquisitors.”

  23. How about “dry Mormon”? =) That’s what they told me I was before I got baptized.

  24. Great post, Aileen.

    When I served my mission in Brazil (1990), we did not use the word “investigator”, rather, we used a word that when translated in English meant “researcher”. I’m not sure that word is much better, but it seemed more dignified to me.

    I see the word “friend” being recommended in place of “investigator”. Whatever the word the Church uses, I do hope we can see these people as friends.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  25. I vote for “Mo-curious.”

  26. I didn’t care what they called me, but it was creepy when the people swarming around me all disappeared after I was baptized. Not sure Friend would have been the right word there… ;)

    Nice post, by the way. Investigator is crummy terminology.

  27. In other churches, they’re not “investigating” ,but “inquiring”, as in a Lutheran church’s monthly “inquiry class” where potential members can come learn more about the religion outside of the sunday meetings.

  28. The Right Trousers says:

    Five minutes later, and I’m still laughing about “mo-curious”. It’s got just the right amount of squirm.

    Dunno if I can top it, but here I go:
    – Baptismally challenged
    – Pre-Mormon-American (or other ethnicity)
    – Person with gospel needs
    – Spiritually advantaged
    – Water-bound
    – Currently multi-religious
    – Person of strong LDS affinity
    – Patient
    – Case (I’m sure that’s even better than “investigator”)
    – Preclear (so what if Scientology uses this too?)
    – Post-Babylonian
    – Flirt (from the “Christ as a bridegroom” theme)
    – Friend with benefits (because “friend” doesn’t connote enough)

    Uh, yeah. The only thing I’d worry about if we decided “investigator” had to go is replacing it with something even longer. It’d get abbreviated as surely as “enrichment night” did. I can’t even remember the correct term now…

  29. The Right Trousers says:

    #27: Well, then, what about “inquirer”? It’s kinda sassy.

  30. a Black sister says:

    Proselyte and tracting are words only in Mormonese–neither of these is an actual English language word.

  31. a Black sister says:

    Proselyte as a verb, that is!

  32. Left Field says:

    Visitor works for those actually in attendance at meetings. Of course it doesn’t distinguish between “investigators,” members visiting from another ward, and people attending for some other reason. Of course, if you’re just welcoming visitors from the pulpit, why would you want to make those distinctions anyway? And that still leaves us without a general term for those we currently call “investigators.”

    When I was a missionary, we always avoided terminology that implied that a person is a potential convert. That tends to scare people off in the early stages when many people feel more comfortable just thinking of themselves as learning about another religion. In some contexts seeker is used for someone investigating different religions, but the term often doesn’t apply to what we call investigators. At least at the beginning of the conversion process, people don’t want to move too far from the familiar. One advantage that investigator has over something like potential convert or even seeker is that it doesn’t push them too soon from the familiar towards a major life change.

    Other terms that need to go if we could only think of a better alternative include fireside and Mia Maid.

    I once heard a general authority suggest that we avoid use of the word counselor in interviews with the media. He said that the term might suggest a psychologist or psychiatrist. The same guy also suggested that we avoid the term D&C because the medical meaning is the first thing that will come to mind for non-LDS. That’s not exactly the association we would want people to make with the scriptures.

  33. neither of these is an actual English language word.

    I don’t know what your operative definition of an English word is, but in my world a unit of language used by native speakers of English that functions as a principal carrier of meaning certainly qualifies as an English word.

    Anyway, let me take this opportunity to cast my vote for “gentile.” Or “goat.” Maybe “tare,” but I doubt that usage would reap much more than blank stares.

  34. Thomas in #21: I think “unwashed” is a good one because it implies the absence of an authoritative baptism. Kind of like “dry Mormon” suggested elsewhere.

  35. In French, such people are referred to as “amis de l’Eglise” friends of the Church.

  36. Eric Boysen says:


  37. a Black sister says:

    As I said, they may be words in Mormonese, but they are not words in common English usage elsewhere.

  38. Another New good word is “Less Active Member”… from the beginning we were inactive…. meaning we dont attend or pay 10% of our income to the church… BUT I guess God found it offenseive to think that anyone would be a member and totally INACTIVE… so he revealed this NEW word to them…makes the investigator think that every Mormon is active to some degree…. Oh Well God moves in mysterious wordings his wonders to inform

  39. they are not words in common English usage elsewhere.

    Which of course is quite different than not being English words at all. Jargon is neither a new nor limited phenomenon.

  40. Surely, your not suggesting we call all investigators Aileen. Opps, I didn’t mean to call you Shirley.

    How about “a seeker” as in a seeker of truth.

  41. Kevin Barney says:

    “Friends” are Quakers, and “seekers” is a particular Christian tradition (Joseph and his father were seekers; there is a religion column in the Tribune called “The Seeker.”). The potential for confusion with these established usages is too great.

  42. From

    –verb (used with object) 1. to examine, study, or inquire into systematically; search or examine into the particulars of; examine in detail.

    (noun) One who searches diligently into a subject.

    Maybe investigator is the best discription of someone wanting to know mmore about the LDS faith. It is a complex religion requiring a lot of studying and research.

  43. #25–LOLZ. It’s got my vote.

  44. As noted in #7 and #35, in French-speaking countries the term “amis de l’Eglise” (“friends of the Church”) is widely used. I would add that I was on mission there at a time (earlier I believe than commentators 7 and 35) when this term was just coming into use in preference to “investigateur.” Interestingly for the current discussion, it was explained to me then that “amis de l”Eglise” was a term promoted by the French Latter-day Saints precisely because the French word “investigateur” has the same connotations as Aileen describes for the English word “investigator.”

    Re #41, I think both Quakers in general, and the use of the term “Friends” for that now-obscure religious group, are sufficiently rare as to avoid most confusion if we use “friend” to describe someone interested in our faith.

  45. Last Lemming says:

    My grandfather used “friends” in his journal. It took me a while to understand what he was talking about. Sounded like he was doing far more socializing than teaching.

    Which brings me to my own mission. “Friends” had an almost perjorative meaning among missionaries in my part of Germany. A “friend” (frequently preceded by “professional”) would let you in out of the rain, offer you some (nasty) herbal tea, and talk to you endlessly about America, but never about the Church. In other words, “friends” and “investigators” were mutually exclusive categories. I haven’t heard anything yet that is better than investigators.

  46. I think we should just refer to people by their names. Mark, John, Silvia, Aileen, who-ever.

    I recently invited my roomate to a YSA dance. After a very awkward exchange with a 30 year old, my roomate (who is 18) approached me – so I guess I am an investigator? Oh how I forgot to explain our lingo.

    Apparently her conversation while dancing had gone something like this.

    RM – What ward are you from?
    Roomate – I am just here with a friend.
    RM – So you are an investigator?
    Roomate – I don’t know. What’s that?
    RM – You know, you are investigating the church.
    Roomate – Not really, I am just here to dance.
    RM – So you’re not a member? Have you gone to church?
    Roomate – No
    RM – Oh well, we can fix that?
    RM – Want to come with me to Sacrament meeting tomorrow?
    Roomate – Uh, uh, I need to talk to my roomate …

    I swear I could not make something like this up. My roomate took it in good humor – but seriously, way to try to pick someone up by making them totally feel out of place.

    I really wish we would just refer to people by their names, and not be so quick to label.

    Less-active member
    In-active member

    Maybe we do better than the FLDS, who call those not of their faith, OUTSIDERS …

    but why do have to describe people based on their status in the church. Someone who is a very active member might struggle with something more profound than someone who knows little of God.

    Why can’t we all just be friends, and call each other my our first names?

  47. StillConfused says:

    How about “guest”? “visitor”? Now they have a temporary connotation, but at least they are positive.

  48. The Seeker is Harry Potter’s possition on a quidditch team, and that’s all I can think of when I use it…

  49. researcher
    if we are peculiar, then perhaps “ordinary”? or, “curious”?
    ooh…if a “novitiate” wouldn’t work, as they are still just looking into it…how about a “considerate”? ;-)

    or perhaps, “checkers”, as in “checking it out”?

  50. “Golden contact” has been used. Missionaries all understand what’s meant by “She’s golden.”

    I’m afraid that once a word is entrenched into the vocabulary, it’s very hard to extricate. That is why, despite the repeated efforts of the CoJCoLDS to have people use the full title, we’re still Mormons.

  51. I like inquirer, truthfully. But Mo-curious totally rocks too.=)

  52. I like Guest and Visitor, which is what I normally use when it isn’t a friend. Good Call still confused.

  53. The problem with referring to someone by their name is that when you say “Aileen” or “Dan” I’d probably have no idea who you are talking about. But if you said “The Visitor with the missionaries” Or “the inactive guy that lives by ken” then I atleast have a frame of reference.

  54. Where I live, it seems that missionary “splits” have become “exchanges.”

    I visited a peach church recently. They held a class called “Questers.” It was open to question-askers both within and outside the faith. But the term is a bit obscure, no?

  55. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 25

    Sorry, that term is already in use here in West Hollywood.

  56. Wow. Lots of comments. Figures my laptop picks a great weekend to completely blow up on me, leaving me with a 10 year old desktop that processes about as quickly as you would think it does. Sorry that I have been absent from the discussion. I only now turned the hand-crank enough to get me about 10 minutes on-line.

    So many great suggestions. My thoughts:

    Friends. Well, you have friends, and then you have “friends.” Though I like the term, I don’t think it would accomplish what the LDS faith desires in such a term b/c it would get confused, well, with “friends.”

    Potential convert. Though I too thought of this one, it’s a mouthful, and I agree with what someone said about not winding up with a term that is more to say than “investigator.” And several pointed out that to a person of LDS faith, all are potential converts, so it doesn’t single out the one about whom you’re talking. As an aside, I think therein lies the difference — in the LDS faith (and please, correct me if I’m wrong), there seems to be a need for such a term, whether it be “investigator” or some other term, so that simply using a name (“Aileen”) wouldn’t really work. At mass yesterday, I searched for someone using a similar term in a similar context, and all I could come up with was, “If you’re here inquiring about the Catholic Faith, then…..” I’ve never noticed any term used wherein you would call someone a name, other than their actual name. Perhaps they belong to a group and in the context above, they would be “inquirers,” but on the whole, there is no similar term or need for such a term.

    And I think the difference may be the LDS view of everyone non-LDS as a potential convert, whereas, in Catholicism (my experience), I’ve never viewed anyone non-Catholic as a potential convert. My LDS friend who gave me the Book of Mormon — that was nice b/c I’ve been asking a lot of questions; in the same vein, however, I would never have thought to provide her a New American Bible. Just never would have crossed my mind.

    And to return to that — at some point, I think I’ve become an “investigator” to her or to her LDS friends, though I’m not sure I’ve earned it. And really, I’m still not comfortable with that whole “needing a term” thing. If anything, if I were an “investigator,” the idea of having that term applied to me would turn me off. It would be a big hurdle for me to get over.

    I can relate to comment #46 regarding taking a non-LDS roommate to a dance. There are some LDS who really want to stick you in a category (active, less active) (investigator). At what point is someone an investigator? What is your definition? Your starting point is that everyone is a potential convert. If I’m a friend to active LDS, and I ask lots of questions about the LDS faith (it’s my nature to ask lots of questions, and on top of that, until 2 years age, I really knew nothing about the LDS faith), at what point does someone consider me an “investigator”? Wouldn’t I have some say in that label being applied? Am I consulted before the judgments about my motivations are made?

    Seeker. I’m with #48 on this one. The minute I read “seeker,” I thought of Harry Potter and laughed.

    Mo-curious. I like it.

    #42 — I agree with all the definitions on “investigator.” I looked them up myself. But I was hard-pressed to find a definition that didn’t connect it up, so to speak, with a police investigation or with a reporter. So, although your definitions as read appear harmless enough, I think the connotations with the word are a big hurdle for us non-LDS folks.

    How do you know when someone is an “investigator”? What makes them so? Where is the LDS definition?

    I think “inquirer” is the best label so far that accurately describes what is happening, and isn’t offensive. Your only risk in offending is if you apply it when it really doesn’t apply or “before its time,” if you know what I mean. The term “inquirer” does not reflect poorly on your LDS Faith, which is ultimately what I think “investigator” does b/c I still think it infers something untoward which requires investigation.

    Thanks for everyone’s thoughts on my post.

  57. Left Field says:

    Although I would be pleased to find a better term, I don’t really agree that investigator has strictly negative connotations. In science for example, it has strongly positive connotations. A “principal investigator” is someone who has acquired a large research grant to study a question deemed important by the process of peer review.

    Inquirer isn’t bad, but is difficult to say without slurring the last two (nearly identical) syllables. And it does have an association with tabloid journalism.

  58. “Inquiring minds want to know…”

    Thanks Left Field too for the info on positive connotations. I hadn’t considered that aspect.

    Can someone enlighten me re: “tracting”? I’ve not heard this term at all.

    I do like “friends of the Church.” I would be pleased to be referred to as such, versus investigator. The exchange could go something like this:

    Sarah: Hi, Joe, I see you brought someone with you to Sacrament this morning.
    Joe: Yes, that was Aileen, my friend, and a friend of the church as well.

    Now, doesn’t that sound better than “Yes, that was Aileen, my investigator friend.”

  59. Aileen, early missionaries used to pass out “tracts” (pamphlets and other such printed material) as they met and talked with people. Therefore, the term “tracting” came into being. It has continued to be used as the generic term for contacting, even when “tracts” aren’t used in the same way.

  60. Aileen,

    I think the problem with the term “investigator” or any type of categorization is that a phrase will mean different things to different people. For example, for some people, being active in the church means going to meetings every Sunday for others it means serving in callings, going to the Temple, going on a mission, etc.

    For me, the word investigator should only be a missionary’s word to refer to people they are actively teaching the gospel (which often leads to baptism). Tracting is another one of their words – which refers to the process of going door to door talking to people about the church (and is probably the least effective way to find people to teach). On my mission in Chile, we were asked to keep track of the number of missionary lessons we taught and the number of “investigators” at church. And while I was in areas where every week there were lots of visitors at church (non-LDS significant others, etc) we only counted those who were actively participating in the discussions. Because that is what what was being asked.

    However, as noted in this thread, the term investigator has spilled into every day Mormondom. I believe it can mean anything from someone who has a baptismal date set to someone who has just walked into a chapel for the first time, to casually see what the church is about to someone like yourself, just has questions. I don’t refer to my friends who visit church or activities or just simply ask questions as investigators.

    I don’t like when the word is used in casual conversation. As with my roommate (comment #46), I don’t like when people are stuck into a category. I think most members aren’t trying to be judgmental – it is just an expression to indicate you are inquiring regarding the church. And for all my complaints, it is nice to know in a gathering of members when someone is not-LDS, as it affects the way you explain things. We do after all have our own lingo and culturisms.

    So my suggestion is to introduce yourself with your own label before you get tagged with something that can mean a variety of different things to different people.

  61. (oops) the the U.S.

  62. (oops) the the U.S.

  63. SinisterMatt says:

    Good point, Aileen. I hadn’t really considered the potentially negative aspects of it.

    I would go with friends (though not with benefits, as that has a whole other, not appropriate for church connotation) or even “friend of the church.”

    Inquisitor would be hilarious if it didn’t imply a rack in the cultural hall (you will become a member or we will draw and quarter you), given the furor around Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

    Of course, there is always, “This is Aileen, who is visiting with us today,” which is my favorite.


  64. What about the word “guest” ??
    The Evangelicals use that term a lot, and they definitely lead in terms of making newcomers/investigators/whosoever feel welcome.

    Contrast the Church’s suggestions for visitors:

    with the the leading Evangelical church in

  65. Left Field says:

    The problem with guest and visitor as a substitute for investigator is that they don’t cover the same semantic territory. It makes perfect sense to refer to someone as a guest when they are at church, but when the missionaries are teaching the person at home, it’s the missionaries who are guests. If people are regularly taking the missionary lessons but haven’t been to church, it doesn’t make much sense to call them guests.

  66. Do you have to have lessons from the missionaries? Is that always the way you must convert?

  67. I don’t mind the term “investigator” (I was just baptized last year). I figured I was investigating the church to see if I agreed with its beliefs and rules, not that I was looking to find what was wrong with it.

  68. Actually, why not skip the noun altogether.

    “This is our friend, Aileen, who is studying with the missionaries.”


    “This is our friend, Aileen, who is studying with us.”

    We don’t have to use “impact” as a verb. We don’t have to use “lay” when the intransitive “lie” is correct. And, we don’t have to stick a label on those who are studying with the missionaries.

    And it really doesn’t take many more words.

  69. I think it is a great term, because of the lack of anything better.

    I’d very interested in what would replace it. “Friends” is too vague – there would either be constant confusion or else you’d have to add adjectives to it, which would be beside the point.

    I like “investigator” because it empowers the person looking into the Church.

  70. Interested party.

  71. I like “seeker”

  72. #66 – Aileen, there are standard “lessons” – designed to make sure the “investigator” :) understands enough of the basics to make a reasonably informed decision. Depending on one’s interest, those lessons can be taught over the course of a few months or a few days, frankly. Most missionaries would be willing to teach one a day and baptize someone the next week, if that was the desire of the person they were teaching, but that isn’t encouraged.

    Ideally, the initial “conversion” would include a connection to both the teachings (the “Gospel”) and the organization (the “Church”), so you generally need to attend church at least a couple of times before being baptized. Those decisions used to be in the hands of the missionaries and the Mission President, but in areas where there are regular-sized congregations that responsibility now is supposed to reside with the Bishop or Branch President. Frankly, that change was due in part to the need to ensure that people really were committed to the Church and the Gospel – not just attracted to and/or inspired/pressured by the missionaries. The Church has focused very clearly on “retention” and “activity” after baptism in the last 6 years, and it has turned over much of the decision-making process to the local leaders.

    I hope that helps.

  73. I agree it isn’t always necessary to stick labels on people, and usually it is better, when talking about an individual, to say something like “this is my friend Aileen; she’s interested in learning more about the church.” But sometimes it is appropriate to refer collectively to a group of such friends, and I don’t know of a better term than “investigators.” I agree that for some people there is a strong connotation of uncovering wrongdoing, but I don’t feel the term is universally pejorative. Besides, we do want potential church members to study the matter out in their minds — to investigate what they’re getting into. Don’t we?

  74. Adam Greenwood says:

    Catechumen? But that’s more like a “dry mormon,” not just an investigator.

  75. Adam Greenwood says:

    Seeker? Inquirer? Student? Studyer?

  76. Adam Greenwood says:

    On my mission, some PC person had long before decreed that investigators would be known as “electos”–“the elect,” and the term had stuck. Its hard to think of a good English singular though–“a chosen one”?

  77. Researcher says:

    Certainly not “researcher.” That’s already taken. (Sorry!)

  78. golden contact?

    Dry mormon?

  79. Our mission president believed in positive thinking. “Celestial Candidate” was the term we used to describe those we taught.

  80. Do you have to have lessons from the missionaries? Is that always the way you must convert?

    This is kind of an interesting question. I think Ray’s answer is correct, but as to whether there is a formal, etched-in-stone requirement that every person must, without exception, be taught the missionary discussions before baptism, I think the answer is no.

    As a practical matter, it would be unusual for a bishop to approve a person for baptism if they had not been taught the discussions, but I can imagine circumstances where it might be done for various reasons; e.g. if the person had attended church off and on for a number of years or in some other way had already learned enough of the basics to be baptized without receiving the discussions.

    Anyone know if there is anything in the CHI on this?

  81. I never thought of “investigator” having negative connotations. I always just thought it was cheesy. Like someone in a trenchcoat and holding a magnifying glass to their nose. Kind of funny, actually.

    Is “interested party” less suspicious-sounding? I’m not sure we need to have a label at all, actually, except that people like shorthand. It’s too much trouble to say “So-and-So, who’s interested in learning more about our religion.” But it would be better if we did that, probably.

    Or maybe we could call everyone who’s interested in learning more about our religion “Fred” or “Mavis.”

  82. Thomas Parkin says:

    MCQ and Ray,

    Bishops aren’t approving baptisms here. Elders are still doing baptismal interviews, and baptizing as they find it to be the right thing, under direction of the mission president and contained by policies. Investigators, as a matter of policy, must have attended Sacrament Meeting three times, must have had all the missionary discussions (this is true even in the case of child of record baptisms that run past the age of eight), and must have made the commitments contained in the lessons and in the baptism interview. I’ve also discovered recently that a person who is on probation can’t be baptized.


  83. Thomas, thanks. I just re-read my comment and realized that it is misleading and could be mis-interpreted in one particular area. I left out the confirmation aspect completely and didn’t realize I had done so until I read your comment. (That’s what happens when you have no time and type too fast – and don’t follow your general rule of re-reading before submitting. You’d think I’s have learned that lesson by now.)

    The second paragraph was supposed to read:

    “Ideally, the initial “conversion” would include a connection to both the teachings (the “Gospel”) and the organization (the “Church”), so you generally need to attend church at least a couple of times before being baptized **and confirmed**. Those decisions used to be in the hands of the missionaries and the Mission President, but in areas where there are regular-sized congregations that responsibility now is supposed to reside with the Bishop or Branch President, **since they are in charge of confirmations after baptism**.

    Missionaries still determine worthiness to be baptized, but Bishops and Branch Presidents control the confirmation. Therefore, missionaries are counseled to work closely with the Bishop (or Ward Mission Leader) when planning the baptism. Nobody wants a baptism to occur and then have the confirmation delayed due to concerns of the local leadership.

    Again, thanks, Thomas.

  84. “You’d think *I’d* have learned that lesson.”

    I must be tired. I actually read that comment three times and still missed that mistake.

  85. Thanks everyone for all your information and for all the suggestions for alternatives to “investigator.” I love that everyone here is so polite and considerate and respectful of everyone’s opinions. It makes it a joy to keep coming back.

    I suppose the end result of my inquiry regarding “investigator” is thus: yes, there appears to be need for a term of this class of people; and no, there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on what is better. I agree that my background probably does lend more negative connotations to the term than let’s say a member of the general public; however, I still believe that the negative connotations, taken together with the need to actually place the label itself can, at times, do harm to your efforts to spread the Gospel. I think it’s fair to say that most people do not appreciate labels, and I suppose that I’m not only objecting to the term itself but also to the application of the label. It feels like it’s an attempt to either make me something I’m not OR alternatively, rush me to be something I haven’t yet reached.

    Ultimately, am I an “investigator”? I’m not sure. I ask a lot of questions. I do a lot of reading. I try to learn more before passing judgement (and if I’ve already passed judgement, b/c let’s face it, that happens too, I like to research to make sure I made the right one or to correct myself). So, really, rather than try to put me into a category, I do simply prefer “Aileen.” And then maybe you can get to know me and my motivations. My husband still finds it hard to believe that 2 years later I’m still buying books about the LDS religion. I still have lots of questions, but I have a real problem talking to or relating to the Missionaries that come to our door. Why are they so young, green, and really, kind of, hmmm, clueless? That’s probably not the right word. They can tell me all about their “testimonies,” almost like a script, but the substance seems to be lacking. It’s almost as if they’re designed for the unknowing or those who know nothing about the LDS faith, b/c when I try to question them about well, questions (b/c I do know a little bit of something and I have read some of the BOM), the response is circular reasoning — no answers and all about the “testimony.” But, that my friends, is a whole other topic for a whole other time.

    Thank you again for taking the time to read my post and to comment.


  86. Aileen, all they are meant to do is preach the very basics and bear simple testimonies. The deeper questions really are best answered by mature members – and I don’t mean only “old” when I say mature. :)

    My advice to all those who really want to know more:

    Find a member who knows about these things and ask him or her. It might take more than one member, and it might take getting the e-mail address of someone on a blog like this, but don’t expect the missionaries to know much about the deeper stuff. They generally are only 19-23 year old young men and women, and they are looking largely for those who get a primarily spiritual witness – not those who require a more intellectual connection up front. Answering those questions is the responsibility of the membership.

  87. Do you have to have lessons from the missionaries? Is that always the way you must convert?

    I agree mostly with what has been said. However, since we are talking semantics – there was a critical assumption made in the above statement. Convert was interrupted to mean “join the church”, be baptized, etc.

    This is not necessarily the same as conversion.

    That can happen in so many different ways and is really a life long process. And not all members are truly converted.

    “Conversion includes a change in behavior, but it goes beyond behavior; it is a change in our very nature.”

    There are a bunch of really good talks on the website if you are interested. The following from Elder Cristofferson made a profound impact on me a few years ago.

  88. First: as to #80. Things may have changed in 30 years, but when I studied about the Church on my own and then went to a Bishop to request baptism, I was told that I had to submit to the standard “discussions” (lessons), presented by the missionaries. Which I did, albeit grudgingly. FWIW.

    I think #68 is on the right track. We in the west (globally-not the western U.S.) tend to nominalize and objectify WAY too much. It’s almost as if by labeling, nominalizing and objectifying we could somehow ‘possess’ the experience/situation/person/whatever. (For an interesting discussion see Erich Fromm’s book, “To Have or To Be.”)

    I vote that people be treated as people, not things. “…my friend Aileen, who is visiting/who is studying or looking in to or learning about (or even ‘considering joining‘) the Church.” Aside from not objectifying the person, these explanations are not ‘verbal shorthand’ and are therefore more accurate and meaningful. English is full of perfectly good verbs; let’s use ’em!

  89. Okay, i see i’m way too late to his conversation, but you could always use the same idea as in France – “Friend of the Church” but that is a bit too long … what about shortening it to FoC? or even FoCer?

  90. Aileen, regarding 85 & 86:
    As Ray said, and hopefully this isn’t too much of a threadjack, but the goal of the missionaries is simply to teach the basics of the restored gospel.

    When I served a mission, very much in pre-Preach My Gospel days, we had 6 “discussions” that we presented to those that we taught. Of course we could attempt to answer any question that someone might raise, but the fundamentals of gospel were contained in those basic lessons.

    Even though I was raised in the LDS Church, I’m sure there are many aspects of church history that I am not well versed in. Although different historical accounts, etc. are interesting and some insights can be gained from them, these are not the essence of my belief in the restoration of Christ’s church.

    The goal then of the missionary program is to help those interested to gain their own “testimony.” In a way, being converted really is just the beginning of learning.

  91. Elder Holland, in a Spring 2001 (I think) general conference talk, said that he also feels uncomfortable with the term “Investigator”. Hearing him say that made me feel understood, as I had also felt that investigator sounds awful.

  92. Angie Taylor says:

    I am one of Aileen’s friends, and have read her post and can totally understand why the word “invesitagtor” bothers her. I have even started using the phrase “potential convert” when speaking about those of a different faith. However I was looking in Preach my Gospel and was reading one of the sections and the paragraph I read said something about “how missionaries should help their invesitgators” . . . etc. And I just kept reading, but then I stopped and realized that the word will probably never change. In the context of mormon missionaries teaching someone not of the mormon faith, they will always be called investigators. It is just part of mormon jargon, and if there was a mormon dictionary, it would have it’s own definition that isn’t how Aileen thinks about the word investigator. I personally like using potential convert, but I usually don’t think of my friends that are not of my faith as either “investigators” or “potential converts” I just think of them as my friends, and soon as I start lookin at people around me as investigators or potential converts, than for me personally, I don’t think I am treating them like a real person, or as a true friend.

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