Caren McLane has a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Community Health Education from BYU. She met her husband, Todd, her freshman year while at BYU. They are the parents of 5 children and live on a 4-acre “hobby farm” with chickens, cows, and dogs. She volunteers at the library and hospice and has blogged since 2014. Caren has served in a variety of callings in the Church and is currently serving as the JustServe coordinator in her Montana Ward.
I have to ask, does anyone really feel connected to the ward? Are wards what they once were?
Maybe we’re just still reeling from the affects of a pandemic. Maybe. I wonder how long we’ll continue to use that as our reason for everything that doesn’t seem to be as fulfilling as it once was.
I wonder if wards started feeling a little detached when we disbanded the WAC (ward activities committee) or was it when we switched to ministering? Or maybe it’s just that over decades families have become busier and more involved with sports and activities and other organizations; church doesn’t need to meet their social and emotional needs as maybe it once did.
I’ve heard some mention the switch to two-hour church impacting how much they’re able to interact with others at church, contributing to feeling less connected. I’m not sure what’s changed or why we’re feeling a little disjointed, but as I talk with friends, I’m sensing that very few feel the ward is the hub or support it maybe used to be or could be.
It’s Helpful if We Just “Show Up”
From what I’ve noticed, there are some people who show up for just about everything on the calendar. I’ve seen these new families integrate quickly because they simply become familiar. They’re at church on Sundays, they’re cleaning it on Saturday mornings, they come to the service projects, they show up to the Relief Society and ward activities, they help when the elders quorum has a move, they come when invited to a shower, a social, or temple night, and they do their callings.
They just keep coming, they participate, they serve alongside the others. And there’s no other common trait in these families other than that. I’ve seen old, young, converts, singles… doesn’t matter except they become part of the group that is also always showing up, not like a high school “popular” group, just the same people who are also always there. When you’re moving couches together or putting away tables after an activity or chatting over chili or making a comment in a class, you just get to know each other.
Challenges in “Showing Up”
Interestingly, I’ve talked to good friends who are fairly confident, long-time members, usually in leadership positions, but who say walking into a ward activity induces some anxiety.
I remember moving to our current town twenty years ago and getting a message on our machine that a few families would be meeting at the park, bring your own main dish and something to share. That was such a courageous moment as a young new family, walking into a group of fellow members, knowing we at least had that in common, but not knowing if there’d be anything else. I get it. Even wedding receptions, graduation parties, and ice cream socials are a little scary for me. Thoughts race through my mind, “Who won’t mind if I stand and talk for a few minutes? Whose table could I possibly sit at?”
Changes In Practices
I miss the old version of ministering, visiting teaching. It was a fail-proof way to make a handful of friends. I remember getting a slip of paper at church with my assignment on it many times over the years. I’d note my partner and look at the list of sisters we were assigned to. If I could find any of them at church, I’d go right up and tell them we were companions now or I was their new visiting teacher. When could we come see them?
My partner and I would make arrangements: one would set up the visits, the other would do the lesson. It worked like clockwork for twenty years. I went with grandmas, I visited ladies who weren’t really into the church scene, I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had. Not that it was ever convenient, easy, or even something I looked forward to. But always, always, I felt better for having spent a morning visiting a handful of sisters. We built friendships and trust. We have relationships that are still strong.
A faithful visiting teacher doesn’t guarantee a faithful ministering sister because it lacks the structure and specifics like before. It shouldn’t be hard to continue as a faithful ministering sister, but for some, it still is.
I don’t know if the younger people maybe just don’t remember that idea or if the older people don’t know what to do without that framework, but I wonder how ministering is going. I know people who tell me they don’t want assigned friends; it feels less than authentic. But on the other hand, I know that most people are more than willing to help whenever there’s a need, whether it’s a move or a meal. With the open-ended format, I think most people are at a loss—or at the very least are just uncomfortable—knowing how to show up, thus we’re missing out on building friendships the way we may have used to just a few short years ago.
True Belonging – Our Charge
If there were easy solutions, we wouldn’t need to be talking about it. Feeling included, feeling like you have a support group, feeling like you have people you could call for help or for a talk or for a little fun… that’s the ideal.
I was texting with a friend just this past week who confessed she’s having a rough time because she just doesn’t feel like she fits in. I wrote back suggesting that if we polled the sisters in relief society, I bet she’d be surprised at how many feel the same way. I think we all feel a little on the fringes, and yet we forget that there’s no middle, there’s no in-group, we are the creators and the members of the group, the group of Saints organized to be each other’s friends, brothers, and sisters in this area. We forget that that is our charge.
And that’s where I think we need to start. We tell our kids this all the time, right? Don’t go to church expecting anything from anyone. Go to church to take the Sacrament. To renew your covenants. To worship God. And then look around. Ask Him to help you see. Notice. Take notes even. Who wasn’t there, who was without family, who didn’t seem as upbeat as usual, who had something interesting happen, who did you happen to think about or run into, who could you say “hi” to and ask about their week?
Church is a place where we can feel filled as we seek to fill in for the Savior, as we seek to fill others. Comment in lessons. Thank speakers for their prepared efforts. Greet your leaders. Look for those who are new or visiting, be one who says “hi” and welcomes them. Spend a few minutes with the one.
It’s Not Just a Sunday Activity
And then maybe there’s something we can do during the week to build relationships, to strengthen our wards. If there’s an activity or service project, do what you can to make that a priority and attend, even offer to help set up or clean up or bring something. Ask someone to go with you. Call the people you minister to and offer a ride to the Relief Society or elders quorum activity or the talent show. Make it part of the culture of your home that, whenever possible, we do what we can to show up.
And maybe there’s even more. If it’s within your ability, if you’re even able to consider it, invite—any way that feels like you.
A formula I’ve found that works best is to start with a family or friend you feel very comfortable with, an old stand-by, and find a time that will work to have a backyard get-together, dessert and the temple, ice cream night, FHE, dinner, whatever. And then invite a new family or one you haven’t gotten to know yet—and don’t worry that they’ve been here for a year, and you’ve never had them over yet. No one cares. Just invite.
If you feel like you can go bigger, invite a mix of people, some old, some new, some more comfortable, some a little more intimidating or unfamiliar. It’s nice to have that back-up who will help carry conversations if you’re working the kitchen or overwhelmed or simply willing but uncomfortable. It doesn’t hurt to mention to your stand-by friend that you can use their help this way.
It’s Hard Sometimes but Worth It
I realize that I’m making it seem like it’s such an effort to make friends. But for some of us, most of the people I talk to, this is harder than it sounds. It takes courage and energy to invite. It takes initiative. One of the scariest things I do is hit the send button on a text to invite people over or to go up to the new family at church and invite them for Sunday dinner.
We need to settle down and realize, no one cares about the details. I’ve said it a million times. Just have hot dogs. Baked potatoes. Desserts. Potluck. Tacos. No one cares about the food, how clean your house is, if there are weeds in the yard, or you have dishes in the sink. To be thought of, included, invited, that’s powerful, that’s what they’ll appreciate. Even if I can’t make it to something, I love, love, love when someone invites us to do anything. And I make every effort I can to try to attend anything I’m invited to. I know what it’s like to put occasions together; I want to support any effort I can.
I just feel that breaking bread with people is the fastest way to feel connected. It’s what Jesus did. Small groups feel the best and most intimate. One other family. Maybe two. A few couples. We’ve never, ever had people over and felt it was a flop. The people who come always end up feeling a little closer; it feels like the ones who end up coming were exactly the right people for that time. It’s also a great way to get to know your ministering families better.
Pray and Listen
I get it. Even with that said, there are still those who just don’t feel comfortable inviting others over. And so maybe you could start with a prayer. Ask for courage. Ask to see and notice who might feel safe to reach out to. Ask for help. And then start small and forget yourself.
Say “hi” to one person at church. Ask someone a question. If you are feeling brave, ask someone who feels very kind and safe to come for FHE (easy because it’s short, just dessert, planned agenda). See if another couple would like to play pickle ball or come over for conference and brunch. Ask a sister if she’d like to go to lunch and the temple. Ask someone who lives close if she’d like to go on a walk or help at the food bank with you. Mention something you heard and share your excitement about their new job or calling. Greet a youth by name and ask about their new truck. Offer to help when a sister mentions she’s painting her bathroom this week. Look for who the Lord is putting in your path. Listen for clues. Follow up on your impressions and thoughts.
Devotion as a Friend of Christ
Not to be insensitive, but I notice the people I see showing up are never the same ones who feel excluded or like outsiders. It really does fall to us to make the effort, even though it might take energy and feel a little risky. We’re in our spheres of influence for a reason, on purpose. We all have the responsibility and privilege of making the ward one we never want to leave.
Leaders can’t do it all; besides, it feels more genuine when we, as regular ward members, welcome, participate, notice, and extend a hand instead of waiting to be directed by leaders. It’s as simple as doing our callings, engaging, showing up, sharing, inviting, all the things that show our devotion as a friend of Christ as we build and strengthen His kingdom right here in our own ward.