When we bought the house we now live in back in the late 80s, we had to move into a different ward in our stake. I loved our old ward, but I also loved our new house, so the switch had to be done. I went into it with low expectations; I figured from experience that it would be at least six months, maybe more like a year, for us to begin to make friends and fit into the new ward. I had braced myself not to be disappointed and to take the long view of (eventual) inclusion into the fabric of the new ward. And yet, as it turned out, we began to mesh well with our new ward very quickly. The reason I believe was something the ward did called “dinner groups.”
I had never experienced this in any other ward setting, but I thought it was fantastic. It wasn’t an official church program; technically it was all voluntary, but it was the baby of our bishop’s wife, and almost everyone participated. I wish I could remember the details better, but as I recall, the entire ward was broken down into dinner groups. I forget the size of each group; maybe 8, or 10 or 12. The bishop’s wife made these assignments like a Soviet planner; I don’t know her methodology, but every group had an interesting mix of singles, young marrieds and older folks.
So once a month on a given evening (and I don’t recall that either; maybe the such and so Thursday of each month or something, although I think the group could change it if they wanted to) two dinner groups would get together at someoone’s home for dinner and conversation (and if you wanted to, something more such as games, but that was up to the individuals involved). This would happen all over the ward, so in theory the entire ward was having dinner in various people’s homes that evening. Not everyone would make it every time, so the number of people would be manageable, and it was sort of like a potluck dinner in someone’s home. Then the next month, the dinner groups would rotate, and your group would have dinner with a different dinner group.
It was all voluntary, but my recollection is that almost everyone participated. And this practice had the following effects:
– We quickly became good friends with the other people in our dinner group, because we shared dinner and conversation in someone’s home with those people each month.
– We also got to know most of the other people in the ward rather quickly, because due to the rotating of groups each month, over time we had had dinner and conversation in someone’s home with the vast majority of the ward roster.
– This was an easy way to integrate singles into the ward, as the building block was not couples but a group into which singles naturallly fit.
– Although hard core inactives didn’t participate, many ward inactives were involved in dinner groups. These would be the only church-related functions these people were involved in, but as a result the active and inactive members got to know each other socially, and it made it much easier to reach out for things like home teaching visits when a foundation of friendship had already been established.
I don’t recall how long this practice lasted, but probably no more than a couple of years. I think it died when our bishop moved, since his wife had been the guiding force of the program, and the program needs someone to nurture it along–it won’t just keep going all on its own. But I was very glad for the dinner groups, since we quickly became friends with everyone else in the ward in a setting outside of the church building.
Today I look around my ward and am embarrassed to realize that I only really know the old-timers; more than half of the ward are people whose names I don’t even know. A directory with pictures would be helpful. But I also think the dinner groups of my first ward in this area would be another way to grease the skids of establishing actual friendships with the other people in the ward.
(This post is meant to be a longish comment to Julie’s post about retention over at T&S.)