Melody Warnick is an author and freelance journalist living in Blacksburg, Virginia, where her husband serves as a stake president. Her book, This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are, investigates and experiments with the sense of connection that binds some of us to our cities and increases our physical and emotional well-being. Melody also shared her insights on a LeadingSaints podcast, Feeling at Home in Your Ward.
When my husband got called as a stake president last year, I thought I’d keep an eye on him by going to the unit conferences held once a year in each ward and branch. Added bonus: I’d get to know people in the stake. But since he leaves for these meetings way too early in the morning, I’d regularly have a moment of pulling alone into a church parking lot somewhere far away and thinking, as I headed into sacrament meeting, Where will I sit? Who will I talk to? Will anyone talk to me? Being a temporary newcomer was practically inciting a panic attack.
As I learned writing my book This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are, we all have a human need for belonging and social connection, and a lot of us fill those buckets in our wards. That’s what makes it especially painful to wrestle through periods where we feel like outsiders at church, or in the words of Sharon Eubank of the Relief Society General Presidency, “not accepted or acceptable.” It’s not just being a newcomer that can make us feel socially isolated. Think of the many kinds of reasons we can have for feeling different and disconnected:
- I’m older than most people here.
- I’m younger.
- I have different political beliefs.
- I’m a different race or nationality.
- I have less money.
- I have doubts or questions.
- I have a disability.
- I have a mental illness.
- I’m single.
- I’m divorced.
- I’m gay.
- I’m married to a nonmember.
- I’m a nonmember myself.
- I’ve been less active for a long time.
- I don’t have children.
- I have a lot of children.
- I am facing a temptation or a trial that no one else understands.
- I’m not as talented, smart, funny, or beloved as someone else in my ward.
What I’ve learned is that virtually everyone feels from time to time like they don’t belong or fit in in their ward or branch. Some people feel that way almost always. At its most extreme, this lack of belonging drives members into inactivity, destroys unity, and breaks hearts.
Because we live in geographically-determined wards and branches, escape isn’t really an option. Our best bet is to try and foster a sense of community and belonging from within. How can we do that, as both leaders and members?
1. Acknowledge and Respect Difference
Sure, they make us uncomfortable sometimes. But there is no singular LDS mold to which members have to conform. Remember what Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 12 about the members of the Church being like different parts of the body? You may be an eye and I may be an elbow, but we wouldn’t want to do without either. One recent study found that the #1 reason young people leave the Church is they feel judged. We can prevent that by working hard to include and love everyone in our wards and branches, even when they struggle, live the gospel differently than us, or are just plain not like us.
2. Focus on the One
While Jesus Christ’s pattern was to include everyone, He particularly focused on the people whom the culture of the time marginalized, including tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, and the ritually unclean. The Pharisees hated that about Jesus. Why, they cried, was he spending time with that person? But Christ steadfastly loved “even the least of these.” As leaders, we need to watch for those who might feel in some way on the margins or different, and help them feel both seen and welcomed.
3. Make Horseshoes Instead of Circles
When friends get together, we naturally stand in circles. What if we made a horseshoe instead, leaving a physical and emotional opening for newcomers? As a BYU sophomore I moved into a new student ward for the summer, where most people were older and had a lot more money than I did. I was only there for two months, but two months is a long time to be lonely and miserable. I’ll never forget one Sunday when a girl from the ward to whom I’d never spoken invited me to dinner at her house. That was all. It’s not a great story. We didn’t become best friends. It was probably not a big deal to her. Yet 24 years later I still remember that kindness. Ask yourself, who can I invite to join my circle of friendship? How can I extend that kindness? By inviting them to dinner or to a game night? By sitting next to them in Relief Society? By including them in the next group text about movie night?
4. Be Proactive
Even after seven years in my ward, there are occasional Sundays when I feel alone or sorry for myself, usually for ridiculous reasons. No one said hello to me after sacrament meeting. No one sat by me in Sunday school. There is so much pride in those complaints. When I manage to get over myself, I realize that what really happened is I didn’t say hello to others after sacrament meeting. I didn’t sit by anyone in Sunday school. That belief in proactive engagement is one of the key lessons I learned writing This Is Where You Belong. Feeling at home in your ward doesn’t just happen. You have to seek it out. As leaders, we can encourage proactive socializing among our ward members, but we need to be especially proactive about small behaviors like greeting others and noticing newcomers ourselves.
5. Move Closer
When someone seems difficult to find common ground with, don’t back away. Move in. Try to know them better. Let them know you see them and their struggle. One practice that sometimes helps me when I encounter someone who seems difficult to love is to actually say the words “I love you” inside my head. It reminds me that we’re all children of God.
“In this Church,” said Elder Gerald Causse of the Seventy, “there are no strangers and no outcasts. There are only brothers and sisters.” Christ sees us no matter how ignored, forgotten, or on the margins we sometimes feel. He is the source of true belonging. On the days when we may not feel like we fit in anywhere else, we always fit with him.