Ward boundaries: thinking beyond geography and singles wards

Recently the Manhattan stake where I live has undergone a surge of growth.  In response to the influx of new members, new wards have been created, buildings have been erected, and there is every appearance that the stake will soon divide. 

The surge of members in New York City is undoubtedly exciting.  But these members are also shaping a Mormon community that looks scarcely like the one I grew up in.  The majority of these members are, like me, young singles, newly weds, or parents of young children who come to the city to pursue school or professional goals.  They are also unlikely to settle in NYC permanently.  Even those who do stay in the city for several years often switch apartments frequently and thus migrate from one ward to another.  If NYC wards are anything, they are resoundingly transitory phenomenons, with congregations whose faces change almost monthly as huge intern populations come and go.

It is a truly remarkable experience to be part of such a vital community that is home to so many intelligent, motivated members.  But until I became a Young Women’s leader in one of the newly created wards, I did not notice that this growth has some decided downsides when in comes to nurturing today’s young adults.  

Because the majority of the growth comes from a young, transitory population, the new wards that spring up have very few long-term residents in them.   As wards divide, those few permanent families with young adults become spread through the wards so that each ward has extremely few young men and women.  Consequently, it is very difficult to actually maintain functioning youth programs or even to fellowship the youth with other members.   It is not uncommon for there to be just a single young women every Sunday, and it is also not uncommon for the youth leaders to constantly change.

Reflecting upon the fact that NYC’s wonderful growth is also inadvertently causing large problems for permanent residents and the youth, I wonder if it is not time to consider dividing wards with some attention to needs in addition to geography.  Already, the church has singles wards – and people might certainly debate their usefulness – and perhaps we should also consider assigning families to wards in part based on their family’s status in places that face such rapid development.  Perhaps, for example, families with youth could go to designated wards so that there are enough youth to run a steady program.  In NYC, paying attention to facts other than geography when creating wards makes additional sense if the goal is to foster wards stable enough to function, because renters tend to move apartments, and hence wards, so frequently. 

 Although making geography only one consideration when assigning wards would undoubtedly have issues, perhaps it is time to consider some more innovative ways to draw our boundaries so as to promote communities where change rapidly occurs.  Until then, however, we will just have to find ways to thrive within the current system.


  1. FWIW, in our latest realignment within our stake these issues were the ones at the forefront (balancing youth). Maybe that will bring you some hope.

  2. John Williams says:

    Good post… but I’m not so sure the Church doesn’t already do this.

    Also, if you’re single, why aren’t you in a singles ward (apparently you’re not if you’re a Young Women’s leader)?

  3. John Taber says:

    I’ve been a clerk at the ward and stake levels for a long time, and every boundary change considered has included the concern of keeping things as balanced as possible at several different levels, including Young Men and Young Women.

  4. Wow – this article hits very near to the mark with my family. When I just read it to my wife who is sitting on the couch, her jaw dropped and she asked “How did this person read our mind!?!”

    Our family lives in a relatively normal, established, family ward in Cincinnati OH. Because our ward boundaries encompass 2 major colleges (U. of Cincinnati and Xavier) our ward’s population also seems to be very transitory. The running gag in the ward is when you meet a new couple to ask “So, are you here for law school or med school?” We also have others studying various other disciplines, but we definitely know the ebb and flow of many move-outs in May and June, and the corresponding move-ins in August and September.

    There are a good number of “established” families in our ward as well, but for the most part, their children are older and make up our current youth program. Our current youth program is somewhat small but strong, probably fairly typical in the non-Utah division of the church, maybe 15 youth or so.

    This was not something that I thought a whole lot about a few years ago when *I* was the student. We had lots of our student friends with all of our young kids. But all of the friends we had when we were first in the ward have all graduated and moved on, and even most of the “replacement” friends that we got after they left have in their turn graduated and left.

    And there has not been much (any?) new blood (permanent) moving in. In the 9 years we’ve been in the ward, I can think of only one family that has moved in with older kids (and that was probably 7-8 years ago now)

    So all this leads me to think – who are the youth going to be in this ward in 10 years when MY kids (4, aged 0-7) are in YM/YW? My oldest has a decent primary class, as it seems that she is in a class with many of the “last” kids of these established families. My other kids have mostly the kids of students in their classes, who are unlikely to still be here in 5-10 years.

    I know this is long but bear with me, I’m wrapping up :-). We have recently pondered moving to another city for somewhat unrelated reasons. And as we look at other cities one of the major factors we look for is areas with larger LDS populations, so that our children have good influences / people to date. Having grown up in Cleveland (in a similar dynamic) I’m well aware of what it’s like to be in a high school of 1600 with 3 other Mormons (one of whom is your sister).

    But we like Cincinnati and don’t particularly WANT to leave. But this situation definitely worries me – I would hate to stay here out of inertia, only to see it reap major negative side effects in the lives of my kids. So we talked about moving to a ward with a different dynamic. But again, we really LIKE the part of town that we live in, and it seems kind of silly to move across town only so we can be in another ward…

    Anyways, thanks for listening to my vent…

  5. Creating 1 ward for all families with youth 12 and older is being done, in Seattle for instance. Even so, the ward has very few youth and a few parents in the stake have refused to move into that ward and are running a tiny program in one of the other wards. I share that not to judge them, as distances are great between our wards and I have some sympathy with their issues even as I think a critical mass of youth is terribly important. I share it simply to stress that realignment always has fallout. The adjoining stakes have very few youth. You have to hop over a stake or two to find the homes families can afford. Of course, the economic reality is this will only get worse. Creative solutions, area wide, and manuals with good ideas for teachers with 1 or 2 students, as well as license for teachers and leaders to be creative, are all needed.

  6. We’re considering moving to a stake in Salt Lake that has two family wards. If you have children older than three or younger than 18, you go to one of the family wards and everyone else goes to one of the other wards (I think there are at least 6 other wards with lots of singles, young marrieds, and older couples). From talking to people who grew up in the area before the family wards were created, it has helped the youth programs a lot.

    It does in some ways work in Salt Lake because a family ward that draws from an area that covers 6 regular wards isn’t unreasonably large. I can only imagine what that would have looked like when we lived in New Jersey!

  7. Dan, are you in the Norwood ward? If you want to move into a more traditional ward but stay in the Cincinnati area, feel free to consider the North Stake. I know you won’t get a neighborhood like yours if you are in the city itself, but there are some wonderful “older” neighborhoods northwest of you.


  8. @Ray

    Yup we are in the Norwood Ward – we live in Madeira. We’ve taken a look at the North stake, though mostly just half-heartedly (at least for now)

    It just seems somewhat silly that, having found a cute little town, with schools that we really like, that we have to physically move ourselves in order to attend church with different people / in a different place.

    Which ward do you attend / were you referring to? The wards we’ve (again, half-heartedly) talked about are the West Chester or Montgomery wards, as we’d like to stay over on the N / E / NE sides of town

  9. Natalie,

    Hello from the other side of the river. So much of what you have written here resonates with me. We’ve discussed transient wards previously at ExII, and didn’t come up with many answers. I wonder if becoming “one” as a community in Christ often presupposes stability and long-term relationships. It seems that without consistency, it is very difficult to have collective community progression.

    While I like your idea of an increased focus upon the needs of individual subsets within stakes, in my experience, as has already been alluded to in comment #3, the needs of the members within the wards are already what often drive boundary decisions. For example, in one of my Utah stakes the geographic ward lines resembled long strips running from east at the top of the mountain all the way west to the “worst” part of town–so that every ward would have a critical mass of stable, long-term members to provide support to the lower-income, convert-based neighborhoods.

    Still, the idea of assigning all families with youth into one ward, or all single adults into one family ward, etc., should be further discussed. I wonder how such a program would be implemented, and how it would affect wards who no longer had youth/singles in them. True, the transferring members that are grouped into the new ward benefit from better programs/socialization, but what do the wards they left miss out on? Would it be such a good thing to have 6 totally homogenous wards and 1 “kid” ward in a stake?

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    My ward was dissolved last October, and the major factor was that the youth program was so small it just wasn’t working. So the southern half of the ward was absorbed by one ward, and the northern half by another. This was all initiated by our stake leaders. I personally think this was a good and necessary decision.

    Even though I grew up in Illinois, our ward happened to have a good critical mass of youth, which was extremely important for my continued relationship with the Church. In contrast, my own kids grew up with very few LDS peers, so their friends were almost entirely non-LDS, and neither of them is active in the Church. I personally believe the lack of critical mass in their youth was a major factor for them.

    Still, Illinois is our home, and I wouldn’t have moved away just to try to find a community with a greater concentration of Mormons (I’ve known people who did that and it backfired–there simply are no guarantees).

  11. I understand that at Penn State, there are two State College wards — one for singles and married people with all children under 5 and one for married people with at least one child over 5.

    I also seen it happen a few times where members assigned to be members of another ward.

    In my experience, the three biggest factors considered when creating/splitting wards is (a) the youth programs, (b) where the potential ward leadership (both female and male) live, and (c) potential for future growth in that ward … and generally in that order. Often wards are gerrymandered to get a bishop in a certain boundary, but it’s also more likely that the youth programs are considered (maybe not to be a 50/50 split, but at least stable).

    I’ve lived through 7 or 8 different ward boundaries in 10 years (it gets hard to remember).

  12. We have lived in the Fairfield ward for almost 11 years and absolutely love it. We have members here who have attended the same building (as it was expanded) for over 50 years. I think Norwood is the 2nd oldest building in the area, but I’m not positive of that.

    I understand if crossing laterally would make your commute a nightmare (relatively, considering it’s Cincinnati), but we really do love this ward. If you seriously are considering moving and want to discuss this area, e-mail me at fam7heav @ juno dot com. It’s an old account I don’t use actively, but I’ll check it periodically for a few weeks.

  13. @Ray – Email sent. Small (Internet) world, huh? :-)

  14. Dan – Yup.

  15. My home city in the Midwest that has 4 wards in a city of 80,000 has consolidated all the YSA into the smallest of those four wards. I think it’s been about 6 months, and so far the experiment seems to be working out well. The ward has two GD classes, one just for YSA which my Mom teaches and loves, and one for anyone else. I believe there are about 20 in attendance any given Sunday.

  16. Steve Evans says:

    Manhattan 1st Ward rules! I guess now that it’s been bifurcated into the Morningside Heights ward and Man 1st, it’s not quite the same, but wow it was the most amazing ward ever back in the day. Right D., JWL, Sam B, etc.?

  17. In our recent ward division, some of the same consequences occurred- the youth programs were dramatically diminished in all of the three “newly created” wards. It appears that the stakes have taken to holding joint youth activities during the week. I guess that this does not help classes on Sunday and it would certainly cause problems in the lines of authority, but the youth seem to be doing OK with it.

    I admit that the Church needs to be flexible in its administration of the borders. I think that it already does consider the circumstances of the families and not just the sheer number of priesthood holders (like it or not, this is the first and most important measure of when wards are divided). In a geographically small area (such as Manhattan-with good public transport too), it should be no problem to allow families with youth of a certain age to attend the same ward. We do the same thing with other-than-English-speaking and YSA units.

    On my mission in Mexico, some leaders were really irresponsible about dividing the wards. Dividing the wards seem to justify itself as a measure of Church growth. They only counted the minimum number of Priesthood holders needed to fill the necessary callings and then divided the ward from there.

  18. Both of the wards I’ve attended in Seattle have this exact problem. In the Seattle North Stake, they do indeed send all the youth from a certain age up to a single ward. In the Shoreline Stake (which encompasses part of north Seattle), the ward I go to meets in the same building as another ward which actually has a large youth program, so we just combine all our classes for the second hour and our youth leaders are called from both/either ward.

  19. Julie M. Smith says:

    For those of you who have experience with this, what do you think is driving it–increasing house prices in certain areas that drive out families? School quality? Decreasing birth rates? Something else?

  20. To raise the other side of the coin, where are all these LDS lawyers, businessmen, and doctors putting down roots once their training is done? They have to become more semi-permanent members in *someone’s* ward.

  21. Julie, in Seattle, your three in the order you suggest: housing cost, then school quality, then declining birth rates. If it weren’t for a large transitory university population, like most large cities, Seattle wards would all consist largely of the “newly wed and nearly dead,” as we so often joke.

  22. Re: 11

    I currently attend Penn State, and recently the wards were again rearranged: young married couples without children and YSA were combined into a new branch (to which I belong), while the remaining members of the area were divided into two wards. You are right that prior to that change young married couples with kids under an approximate age limit of 5 were combined with the young single adults in the University Ward, while the remaining members composed the State College Ward. Now there are two wards and the branch that I belong two as of about a month or so ago.

  23. Isn’t it amazing that you can move and change wards so often and no matter where you go church is the same. Usually, you have instant friends and feel a part of the ward family. This is especially true in the transitory wards. Almost everyone there is in the same boat.

  24. It is interesting that this same recommendation was followed in Seattle once busing spread the city stake’s children all around the city. As key families fled, the stake president decided to consolidate the youth program.

    The remaining geographic wards found that no one with children was willing to make a long-term investment, often saying, “Well, if I’m going to have to move to the third ward and travel 20 minutes to church, I might as well move to a new burrow or out of the city. The wards continued to weaken and shift into newlywed and nearly dead.

    That decision is now being reversed, and it has fostered more growth among professionals with children.

    It’s the law of unintended consequences. Helping the youth may destroy the ability for New York as a city and collection of stakes from ever supporting families.

  25. Naismith says:

    For those of you who have experience with this, what do you think is driving it–increasing house prices in certain areas that drive out families? School quality? Decreasing birth rates? Something else?

    We live in a ward like that, and I feel that after a reputation develops, it feeds on itself and becomes a vicious cycle. When our ward was first divided, taking away some of the youth, people started bad-mouthing it as a place to raise children. So even though our ward boundaries include some wonderful neighborhoods with good schools, people don’t want to move into the ward because they want their kids to be in a “good” (good=large) primary and youth program.

    Plus, our ward boundaries include some economically depressed areas, so people know they will asked to serve a lot if they move into our ward. (I’m not slamming them; some people’s lives don’t allow much room for driving someone to church every Sunday, etc.)

    The thing is, we’ve found that a large youth program is not necessarily “best,” at least for my kids. It was when the program was larger some years ago that one of my girls was bullied and demeaned by the other youth.

    Nowadays, our kids have a great time because they have wonderful leaders, some of whom they become friends with and call by their first name. There aren’t that many girls, but they cherish each other. Plus they are more likely to invite non-member friends to activities, and don’t allow others to be inactive. So I think it’s a strong program even with only a half-dozen or so girls each week.

  26. Naismith says:

    I forgot to add that if there is an Institute of Religion, where the director or secretary lives has an impact, because they are available during the day when people who are considering relocating to the area call to find out abou the area.

  27. Steve,
    Right one!

    Julie (19),
    In Manhattan, it seems to be two things: (1) a feeling, coming in, that you’re only there for law school (or pre-MBA, or whatever). That’s definitely what I thought when I went there. (2) People don’t think that you can successfully raise a family in NYC, so, if they keep a job there, they move to the suburbs and commute (meaning that the families with kids old enough for YM/YW live in the suburbs, and there is one YM in a ward on Sunday). I think, at least in the urban environment, it’s that families have been leaving cities for the suburbs for the last 50 or 60 years; the migration back to cities has begun, but as a people, we tend to lag popular cuture.

    Years and years ago, Manhattan 1 and Manhattan 2 combined their youth. There’s at least one family that lives in the M1 ward (or at least did before the split Steve talks about) that still attends M2 because, back when their kids were YM/YW, all the families with teenagers went to that ward. Still (as of a year ago), the boys from M1, M2, and Morningside Heights attended the same Boy Scouts.

  28. Steve,
    “Right one” meaning, of course, right on!

  29. @Dan & Ray:

    One more Cincinnatian (sort of) here: I went to high school in the Montgomery ward, and my parents still live there even though I’ve been gone for several years. I understand Dan’s frustrations with Norwood, because it’s almost the same story in Montgomery.

    I’ve been in YSA wards for several years now, both in and out of Utah. I’ve seen 2/3 of a ward change over at a semester break, and then do it again the next semester. The flux is constant and high in YSA wards, and yet, we manage to deal with it just fine. Is there something inherently different about family wards, where relationships are diminished if they last for only a couple of months?

  30. I see something very similar in the close-in suburbs of DC. We combine the three wards of our building for mutual but it is still hard to get a critical mass. The other challenge is that at least half of these kids are fairly recent converts or from families without a strong background in the church. Say what you will about Mormon culture but at least it establishes some norms about what is and what is not acceptable (even if some kids choose not to follow those norms).

    One benefit that hasn’t been mentioned is that in a “mid-singles” heavy ward, there is no shortage of talented, committed, and folks the youth might actually consider cool to serve in leadership positions. And, for the record, I am a shallow, flakey married person who most youth think of as a dinosaur, if they waste a thought on me at all.

  31. I think this problem is more common than many realize. And it may be more a demographic one than a geographic one: with family sizes shrinking, if ward sizes remain the same the number of youth decreases. As a father of 1 teenager and two recently graduated from that group, I’m very sympathetic. But I live where one ward covers nearly a full county, and having families with teens gather in a particular ward (which I first heard of nearly 20 years ago) isn’t feasible. It might be feasible in a nearby city that has 4 wards, but to move all the youth into one ward would have dignificant adverse consequences on other aspects of the ward lives — including putting all 4 bishops in the same ward. Those wards do some of their weeknight activities together, though probably not as many as I’d prefer. Then again, I’m not one of those ebishops, who are entitled to inspiration as to haw to best serve their youth.

    But two things are missing from the comments made above:

    1. They don’t address the tools already available in our system for bringing youth together across ward lines: seminary and stake activities. That stake activities do that is pretty obvious. But to do it well may require activities that bring youth together at an earlier age — i.e., when they arrive at stake dance age (14) may be too late to initiate some of the cross-boundary friendships we want to nurture. Seimary is not (at least from the Church and CES levels; stake will vary) limited by ward and stake boundaries. And it actually brings youth tegether more than activities do: they see each other five days a week, not just 2 or 3.

    2. As families, we too often assume that the Church is responsible for giving our kids a social life. It isn’t. Families and and should make connections with others across ward and stake lines. Some of the best “LDS youth activites” I;ve seen were not run by the Church at all, but by enthousiastic youth and caring parents. My kids (who don’t do this nearly often enough, in my view) call these their “Mormon parties.” what I regret is not inviting more families with pre-teens from other wards and branches to socialize with use, to encourage friendships among our children that might form the basis for more “Mormon parties.”

  32. Dan,
    Do you know John & Monica Gibson? They moved out there about a year ago (he teaches at Xavier). They are good, good people.

    At least in my ward in Brooklyn it comes down to housing cost (which relates to living space). The only youth we have are from the three families that have lived here for over 10-15 years. That means they got their townhouses (the only spaces here that are big enough to raise a family) when they were affordable. Those same houses are now worth between $1.5-$2.5 million. In other words, if you have that kind of money and have kids you are likely not moving INTO our ward.

    Right now I’m trying to convince a long-time ward member (with 3 kids in a small two-bedroom) to buy a townhouse in our ward and his good friend in Westchester is trying to convince him to move up there. I think I’m losing the fight.

  33. This is also a huge problem in the Cambridge MA wards. I have no idea how to solve it but the stake has pulled in people from other wards to serve in leadership callings because of the lack of long-time local ward members. I actually think dissolving singles wards in big metropolitan areas would help with this because while there is a high turnover of singles there are also a fair number who stay put. They don’t have the same constraints of housing and family and they could be a stability to any ward. Plus since there are hundreds of singles here, each family ward would have a critical mass of YSA.

    I usually don’t think it helps to separate out people who are the same in attempts to salvage them as a community and those that are not like them (transients vs. long time residents).

  34. Is there something inherently different about family wards, where relationships are diminished if they last for only a couple of months?

    Well, speaking for myself, that’s not the case. We formed several good relationships with other families, even knowing that their stay here was (probably) temporary. But those families are now gone. And we’ve made friends with others that have since come.

    But now we’re kind of stuck in a situation where we no longer have a whole lot in common with many of the newer couples / families. And while there’s no reason that SHOULD mean that we aren’t friends, it’s a lot harder to find reasons to start up those friendships. People seem hesitant to invite us over for dinner or to hang out, since they probably feel that there would be nothing for our kids to do or their apartment is so small or whatever. We have gone through stages where we will make a list of the new families and invite them over to our house for dinner, and that has helped us build some of these relationships.

    @Soren – I’m bummed to hear that about the Montgomery Ward – that was one of the wards we were considering looking into. My wife grew up there for a few years about 15 years ago or so. I guess it’s probably going to be similar with all the “inner” suburbs – most families looking to lay down roots are moving out to West Chester / Mason etc.

  35. Yeechang Lee says:

    Natalie (say hi to Michael for me, please) wrote:

    But these members are also shaping a Mormon community that looks scarcely like the one I grew up in. The majority of these members are, like me, young singles, newly weds, or parents of young children who come to the city to pursue school or professional goals. They are also unlikely to settle in NYC permanently.

    Hah! Growing up attending church at the Manhattan stake center, that really is the Mormon community I grew up in. I’ve seen no indication that the situation has changed, except in terms of sheer numbers and consequent growth in numbers of wards and meetinghouses, since my exile to San Francisco.

    Sam B. wrote:

    In Manhattan, it seems to be . . . a feeling, coming in, that you’re only there for law school (or pre-MBA, or whatever). That’s definitely what I thought when I went there.

    Yes. New York Saints are very, very familiar with the phenomenon of expatriates from elsewhere—typically from somewhere out west—a good chunk of the infrastructure of the local church at any given time. That’s the status quo and by and large thing work, and have worked, out. We long-timers were always grateful for our teachers and leaders, whether they stuck around for a year or a decade.

    People don’t think that you can successfully raise a family in NYC, so, if they keep a job there, they move to the suburbs and commute (meaning that the families with kids old enough for YM/YW live in the suburbs, and there is one YM in a ward on Sunday).

    Phooey to them. I wouldn’t trade my NYC upbringing in the Gospel for anything, and I’ll bet the same for those youth I grew up with. Most of us have turned out pretty well.

    There’s at least one family that lives in the M1 ward (or at least did before the split Steve talks about) that still attends M2 because, back when their kids were YM/YW, all the families with teenagers went to that ward. Still (as of a year ago), the boys from M1, M2, and Morningside Heights attended the same Boy Scouts.

    Yes. When my family moved to the States in 1979 and we began attending church at the stake center, we attended the joint Primary for all the wards in the building. As Sam B. notes, at one time families with youth up through 18 were zoned into Manhattan 2nd regardless of geography.

  36. @Rusty – No I don’t know them – they must be in a different ward.

  37. Single in the City says:

    I lived in a university ward with both singles and married couples and loved having that kind of mix. Married couples only left after their babies where older than 6 months. This seemed to work very well as the ward was used to dealing with a transient population.

    Your mother’s YSA Sunday School class in the family ward is the highlight of my Sabbath! The transition of the YSAs to the family ward is now finally working out really well. I think the first few months ward members saw the YSAs as an extention of the youth, as opposed to contributing members of the ward. But, a miraculous change has occured and the YSAs finally feel like they belong and have been embraced into the ward family.

  38. D. Fletcher says:

    No ward “rules.”

    The Manhattan First Ward was the ward I lived in for 20 years, and it’s the most transient ward imaginable, unless you consider its offshoot, my new ward, the Morningside Heights Ward, which is really just a married student ward with a few others like myself.

    I’ve often recommended that the Church create an actual student ward, affiliated with Columbia, that could meet at Columbia, and let permanent residents go elsewhere. No one listens to me, obviously.

    About the stake dividing, I did have a conversation with the Stake President, and he said, there is on the table a discussion about creating 3 stakes out of 2 (presumably Manhattan and Brooklyn, or Manhattan and the Bronx), but right now, there simply aren’t enough Priesthood leaders. You have to have 3 Stake Presidents, 3 Young Mens Presidents, 3 High Councils, etc.

    We’ll see…

    I agree, in principle, that geography should not play that big a role, certainly not in NYC.

    Personally, I wish they had simply expanded the original building, perhaps with 3 chapels, and everybody could meet there and see each other there. A Mormon Community Center, where the whole stake meets.

  39. Interesting read … since I’m in the Manhattan 2nd Ward.

    Right now I’m just enjoying the fact that we have our new building right here in the Upper East Side. It’s such a nice thing to be able to walk ten blocks to church _and_ not to have to deal with the MASSIVE visitor traffic that was showing up when we attended in the same building as the temple. Nothing against Mormon visitors and tourists – but it perhaps an often unappreciated blessing to be able to recognize the faces of most of the people who are in attendance at any given church meeting.

    I’m very grateful for the growth here in NYC. I don’t think the student expatriate population is going to go away anytime soon. Actually, with the emphasis on the importance of education – it will probably increase over time. But I also think that as more of these students graduate and become LDS professionals, they will choose to settle down in the area. NYC is much more family-friendly than it used to be and a lot more people are choosing to raise children in the city. With the temple here as well, I think people feel much more like they are “at home.”

    The one thing that gets on my nerves a little bit is the degree to which people disappear for a month, or two, or three (during the summer) to go “back home” to Utah. But at the same time I know that there is huge appeal to having your kids visit with their grandparents or relatives in homes that actually have lawns and a back yard.

    By the way, there’s a talk (published at Mormon Mentality) titled “A Giant Revolving Door” that is pertinent to this subject. Some people might enjoy reading it.

  40. D. Fletcher says:

    Dan, I used to see you all the time. Now, never. It’s sad to me that the communities get divided up, even though I recognize it’s expedient.

  41. D. Fletcher – I miss seeing you around and hearing you play the organ at church. That is a downside of the new building, no question about it. There are some other people as well that I used to see that I just don’t see any more.

    By the way, it’s cool to see you posting comments again … maybe I haven’t been paying attention lately – but it seems like it’s been awhile since your name has popped up.

  42. D. Fletcher says:

    Dan, I’ve been ill for about six months. “Ill” is my codeword for depressed.

    I’m only just pulling out of it, with the help of counseling and drugs.

    I didn’t stop going to church, though, so I did miss seeing you around.

  43. JA Benson says:

    We have a similar problem in our Stake. It seems to me that the needs of adults supersede those of the youth.

    Our leaders like for our wards to be small so that all the adults feel needed. The YW and YM/Scouting are then left too small to function well (One or two Laurels, 6 or so active scouts etc…). I have watched this scenario for 15 years: split a large function ward into two smaller units; at least half the youth go inactive; then as the youth grow into adults and IF they stick around a lot of effort is put into re-activation. All that reactivation effort could be avoided if they had paid attention to the teenager’s needs rather than the adult needs in the first place.

  44. D. Fletcher says:

    The New York stake has a very, very low youth retention rate. It’s something like 4%.

    Part of the reason it’s so low is that that are quite a lot of families who join the Church here who already have teenagers. As those teenagers come of age, they immediately fall away from the Church.

    It’s an urban thing…

  45. D. Fletcher, I’m glad to hear you’re “pulling out of it” … I hope to be in touch with you soon.

  46. Norbert says:

    Consequently, it is very difficult to actually maintain functioning youth programs or even to fellowship the youth with other members.

    I disagree with this. Well, I don’t disagree, but I don’t think its impossible. This is only true if the assumptions you have about being in a youth program come from having a large youth program. Our stake has only a few youth per ward — the biggest is maybe 15 — and 85% activity among YW and YM. Very few YW/YM have other members at their schools. I think one reason the system is successful is that the youth leaders grew up in similar conditions themselves, and so they know what to do with 2 YW and 2 YM (our current situation). Perhaps a better approach is to stop importing programs designed for the Sandy 112th ward.

    Isn’t it amazing that you can move and change wards so often and no matter where you go church is the same.

    This is one of the greatest lies in Mormon culture. It simply isn’t true.

  47. I’ll second amri on the difficulties with the Cambridge ward. It’s been particularly hard on my household, although not because of the youth situation (my wife & I have no kids). Rather, my wife is having problems transitioning back into regular Church going (she left the Church, but not the faith, for most of her early 20s). (I’m not a member of any faith, but I am trying to support her reestablishing of her religious life. I’m also a voracious student of religion, which is why I read and lurk at this spectacular blog regularly!)

    With Harvard (particularly the Business and Law Schools) in her ward, we have extremely high turnover on Home Teachers and other contacts – and of course, those people are extremely busy even when they stay around for a year or two. It seems that every time she makes some friends, they graduate or go abroad or move elsewhere. Likewise, the rare times when I’ve met people who aren’t intimidated by my decidedly non-LDS lifestyle (I smoke, I drink, and I can’t get past the first point of the Articles of Faith so conversion is at best a long, long time away), they also disappear too fast. The Bishop is well meaning, but could barely make time for a single visit to my wife when she was hospitalized for two months. I don’t think her Home Teachers ever made it to see her.

    I thought her problems would get much easier after we were married (she couldn’t bring herself to attend the Singles Ward when we were unmarried, but living together), but if anything it’s gotten more difficult. Partial contact is sometimes worse than no contact at all. I’ve been giving serious thought to moving out of the metro area, in part because I’d love to get her in a ward where she could see the same people week in and week out, and establish some strong, long-term relationships with people who won’t disappear three or six months later.

    While the system of “callings” is obviously a wonderful idea in many ways, it seems to have serious problems when the congregation is particularly transient. I believe more attention could and should be paid to these issues when they arise, as I’m sure my wife is not the only member whose struggle with her faith is made more difficult by the very structure that is supposed to support her.

  48. John Mansfield says:

    Is this demographic instability really a problem? If that’s the experience of a ward, it’s because that’s the way of life of those who are members of the ward. If uprooting and moving from one place to another is their way of life, why should their congregational fellowship be an exception?

  49. John,
    The problems with demographic instability doesn’t really fall on the transient. The problems seem to fall on those who’ve put down their roots. Their church experience is negatively affected by those of us (myself and my family included) who are only here for a year or two. My family’s been in our current ward for a year; some five families moved in around when we did, and three of the families are moving out about now (us included). In those families are several ward leadership, who now have to be replaced.

    We, of course, are going back to New York, substituting one transient ward for another, but our choices impact the Saints with whom we’ve been worshipping for the last year, even while they get no say in what our choices are.

  50. #49,

    Sam can you elaborate? My Exp in transitory graduate student wards as described is that all the new move-ins are needed and usually are well versed (RM’s etc)in Mormonism and bring substantial church exp to the new ward. I guess there is some gray here??? My exp is in the North Shore wards of the Chicago Suburbs (Northwestern U)

    They fill a role that normally younger families fill. Unfortunatly the wards like we are talking about the real estate market is so expensive that few active young families with children can move in. Instead they move to areas like mine here in Dallas.

  51. Banky (#47), thank you very much for your contribution. Not only is it well-written and insightful, but it’s wonderful – absolutely wonderful – to read such willingness to support a spouse and understand and respect her beliefs when you don’t share her religious convictions. It shows a true “Christian” heart – much more so than many who claim devout adherence inside and outside our Church.

    Lurk away; I personally would love to hear your perspective whenever you feel like sharing it.

  52. I wanted to add to my second paragraph. I was trying to say:

    The market is so expensive that even after graduation the young families rarely if ever actually purchase a home in these areas and put down roots and become permanant. And also that rarely do families post graduation/mid career buy homes in these type of areas and become permanant for the same reasons.

    So the wards actually rely on the temp families to a large degree.

  53. John Taber says:

    My ward currently runs about 60% families where the parents are under 40, 40% parents above. (And the latter group is everything from teenagers and the occasional Primary kid at home, to a handful over 70.)

    If we were to do what was done in Manhattan, with the families with kids 3-18 in one ward, everyone else scattered – then everyone else in that under-40 group would go to that ward, but my wife and I wouldn’t. Why not? We have no children, and there is only one other active family in the same position. That would mean we and they, despite being the same age (or older) than most of the parents in that group, would instead be surrounded by the empty-nesters. That seems VERY counter-productive to me.

    Oh wait, that’s what happened at last year’s ward Christmas party. The families with kids each took a table (or two families shared one.) Alisa and I wound up with the older couples. I’d just turned 34, Alisa had just turned 30, and the next youngest person at our table was around 63.

  54. bbell,
    I tend to agree: many, if not most, grad students in NY are good members, and willing to work for the Church. Largely, it’s an issue of culture clash: the testimonies about how hard NY is, how badly the person wants to get back to Utah, the trial that it is to be here. I’ve found that there’s no quicker way to tick off the people who actually live there. There’s also a tendency, at some point (which I don’t know the point yet) to not get to know the new people, because it’s not worth the emotional expenditure to make friends who are only going to leave. (And that same provincialism is evident sometimes in the transients: they make friends with each other, but it’s not worth their time to make friends where they are: the influx of interns is a prime example in NY.)

    There’s also the simple fact that you lose some sense of institutional memory. If the YM or YW leader moves away every two years, how are the youth going to get to know the leaders and, more importantly, how will the leaders know the youths’ needs? If the Bishop has to replace 1/3 or more of the callings on an annual basis, that’s a lot of energy expended.

    It’s not right; our ward, and our lives, were enriched by getting to know a newly-wed couple who moved here for an internship 6 weeks ago. The wife is leaving tomorrow, the husband in three weeks. It’s been great to get to know them, but there is some heartbreak in their moving across the country (of course, we’re moving up the coast in a month, but it doesn’t blunt the hurt entirely).

  55. PS to Banky – I say this with a huge smile, but if your wife wants to talk with someone who waited for 30 years for her husband to join the Church (while taking the family to church, attending Mass, sending sons on missions and being the “practice investigator” for new missionaries – and becoming the High Priest Group Leader shortly after his baptism), have her look up Betty Mandarino in the Arlington Ward. I hope she and Gus are still well and attending that ward.

    If there are any lurkers from the Arlington Ward who attended from 1986-1993, please pass on my love to the Mandarinos, Andersons, LaPierres, Chandlers, Mathenys, Sloans, Sandy Catalano and everyone else who helped us so much back then. For all of you in Cambridge, we solved the family issue by living in Medford, Somerville, and Woburn (all in the Arlington Ward) while we worked and attended school in Cambridge.

  56. Banky (47) I’m guessing she’s in Cambridge II with the business and law schools. There’s a little less turnover in I (my ward) because people are working on their PhDs. Then are locals that are regular parts. She could try out that ward. Our stake is, uh, generous with boundaries is need be.
    I really like the ward, though turnover is still a problem.

  57. A couple of ideas have crossed my mind in this thread:

    Bigger is not necessarily the same as better
    Ward and stake boundaries change, and regular people have very little say in how those boundary changes are implemented.
    It strikes me as risky to move from a town you like with good schools and good neighbors just so you can be in a ward with a bigger (see #1) youth program, especially when you will not be involved in that program for several years (see #2).
    Kevin’s comment about critical mass has some validity, I think, but it’s not a given. My son is the same age as his and is also not active in the church, but his reasons are very different.
    JA Benson’s comment that the needs/wants of the adults supersede’s the needs of the youth/children is spot on. This is the reason primary is two hours and not one.

  58. I visited a friend in Cambridge I Ward in 2005. Worship services were positive and memorable, but at the time, I had no idea of the ward’s infamous reputation. Now, the more BCC I read, the more I understand! What is that building they meet in, an old boiler plant or something? That’s definitely part of its charm.

  59. My beautiful ordered list didn’t come out. Snif.

  60. Chad Too says:

    Our family just moved across town and into a new ward. During the joint 5th Sunday meeting, my new Bishop announced that we now have 450 members in the ward, we’re still growing (lots of affordable new housing starts in this section of town) and that there just aren’t enough callings to go around, so don’t expect to have a calling besides HT/VT for a while

    I have a stake calling so I’m not so affected but my wife cheered out loud!

  61. Ray: Thank you so much for that wonderful welcome. I’ve been tempted to post many times, but frankly you all are doing a wonderful job, and most times if I’m patient someone else will make my point for me, only better. My in-laws are quite convinced that someday I will join the Church, and they probably have me penciled in for something like “High Priest Group Leader.” (I know they were awed at the amount of research I did on the Church when I started dating their daughter. Consequently, every Christmas I receive the next volume in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley!)

    Amri: I’m not sure which Ward we’re in at the moment, although she’s been in both at one time or another. Whichever one it is currently, they recently switched from a 1pm service to 9am, which marked the end of her attendance right there. (We are not morning people!)

    But that speaks to my larger point…it took years for my wife to work up the courage to attend services again. For a long time the very topic would provoke tears. But she really wants to go, and for that to happen she needs to feel comfortable there. Now, everyone that I’ve met in the Church here has been very nice, and very well meaning. But as soon as we miss a few services, it’s like we’ve fallen off the face of the planet. Every six months or so, someone discovers her number on a list and offers an invitation to dozens of activities. There may even be follow-up calls for a few weeks. But inevitably, if she’s unable to attend the activities, that’s the end of any contact for another six months. Our home teachers may try and schedule a few visits – sometimes, they even manage to get here! – but because so many of the *leaders* in the Ward are only here for a few years, and frequently in and out quite often during those years, it seems that the “casual” members are easily overlooked.

    I don’t blame any of these people for these problems. Many probably suspect that my wife isn’t particularly interested in Church activities, since she’s so rarely at services and declines many of the invitations. But we have both spoken directly with the Bishop, and I know that he’s aware of her particular issues regarding her return to the Church. Consequently, I’ve hoped that he would do more to make sure that those people in a position to help would do so… I just find it hard to accept that they can’t do more to help her spiritually. A successful return to the folds of her religion would help tremendously with the other, rather difficult, obstacles she faces every day. Whether it’s a problem with the Bishop, with the super-busy/transient leadership and congregation, or a lack of experience in dealing with the wayward sheep I can’t say (no doubt some combination of those and other factors).

    Anyway, I apologize for the length of this post. I hope I haven’t worn out my truly pleasant welcome already! Finally, I hope I haven’t seemed too “down” on the Saints here – it has been my experience that the Church is full of wonderful people who would do anything to help my wife, and I know that her case is a difficult one that has no quick fixes or easy answers. Never the less, I think a major stumbling block is the transitory nature of our Ward, which is what made me break the lurking silence (and in such a verbose way, no less). Thanks for listening!

  62. Banky, I have to admit I laughed until I cried at the thought of someone who is not a member receiving Nibley from his in-laws. I thought I had heard them all, but . . .

    After that reaction, I cried that your wife (and, by extension, you) isn’t receiving the support she needs. I live many miles away, but, hopefully, your comments here will generate a connection somehow there that can help her and you in some way. We might “just” be an internet congregation, but I have to believe we can effectuate good in the “real” world when there is an expressed need like this. If nothing else, at least know that there are plenty of people who understand and appreciate your efforts on her behalf.

  63. Natalie,
    As to your point that the wards in NY don’t look like the one(s) you grew up in, I suspect that’s true of the Church (and society) in general. I get the impression we’re a more mobile society now than even a generation ago. My parents have lived in the same ward, and same public school system, for the last 27 years (and have lived in their currnet home for almost 20 years). My career path, and the career paths of many I know, is unlikely to keep me in one place for more than a couple year, maybe five, but probably not more. (Of course, this could all change and I could settle down, but I don’t know that I will.)

    FWIW, the transience is what my wife, who grew up in a military town, although her parents weren’t military, was raised in. Half or more of her ward, her school, and even her community, would be there for two years, and then would be somewhere else, an Air Force base in Germany or California or somewhere else. It’s got unique challenges, but maybe that’s the model we need to start looking to in our community-building: the model of strong members and friends who are with us indefinitely, but certainly not permanently.

  64. Banky, Cambridge 1 was our favorite ward, but it’s still fairly transient (we were old-timers when we suddenly wanted to live in the Rockies and, still inexplicably, left). Cambridge 1 has always been a very accepting ward that understands differences. It was a privilege to attend for as long as we did. May be worth a try.

  65. You know…i just go to whatever ward i feel comfortable.

    I do not go to the ward of which i am assigned.

    God doesnt care which service i attend as long as i
    attend it.

    Sometimes if i sleep in late i go to singles ward
    sacrament even though im not single.

    And my single brother in law HATES singles ward ( my
    husband hated it too hahaha ) and goes to the regular
    family ward.

    I would not move my living quarters just to be in a diff
    ward. Go to which one you feel comfortable, my bishop
    has said this is fine.


  66. and since Roman’s bishop told him it was ok, then it is ok for all of us. Last word on that subject, I suppose.

    My oldest son wants to know if there are any YSA Female branches, and, if so, how he can get called into the Branch Presidency. I told him to get permission from Roman’s bishop.

  67. Sorry, Roman. Typed “him” while thinking “her”.

  68. There is at least one very good, practical reason for ward boundaries. If everyone attended wherever, how would all the callings be filled? The lay ministry structure relies on geographic boundaries and a degree of stability (even in transient wards) to make the Church work. If we attend wherever we feel like it just for our own benefit, we don’t help build His kingdom.

  69. I will apologize upfront for the length of this comment, but I wanted to share my perspective about this post and the ensuing comments.

    Most college towns have obvious transient challenges. Natalie has captured the essence of the pros and cons of the transient situation, particularly in Manhattan. What works or is being tried there and in other places seems to meet most (but not all) of the needs of those who are in those wards/stakes. But it wouldn’t work everywhere.

    My sister lives in a ward near two military bases in TX. It is a VERY transient ward, and also includes “military widows,” MANY young families, and some permanent families and senior citizens. (When I visited, I seriously felt like I was back in UT. It was a HUGE ward!) Her bishop and the leaders try their best, but it is obviously difficult to serve and reach that demographic.

    Even more-stable (ie: more permanent) wards have fluctuations in numbers. People move in and out. Kids grow up and go to college. There are birth cycles. (when it seems everyone is pregnant at the same time…)

    In our somewhat-stable ward in the Midwest, I served for 4.5 years in YW (recently released). During that time, we had a low of 6 and a high of 14 active YW. I have taught many lessons for just one Laurel or Mia Maid. Since then, one of my daughters has entered YW with another girl who has a birthday 2 weeks later (making a Beehive class of 7; yahoo!!) — but the YW who came in before them entered in Nov ’06, and the next one doesn’t enter the program until Jan ’08. From Aug ’06 to Feb ’07, there were just two Laurels. By the end of this month, there will be 5 Laurels. I have found these same ebb-and-flow situations in Primary, YM, and YSA.

    I loved serving in YW and have had 4 kids in YM/YW. I would agree that the size of the youth program doesn’t necessarily “matter.” Large isn’t always better; small doesn’t have to be negative. A good youth leader will get to know the youth and their needs, whether they serve for 1 year or 4. Time helps build trust, but that trust between teens and leaders can (and does) happen without constraints of transient moves and calling time frames.

    I am a big fan of seminary and ward/stake activities to build youth friendships. (Though I realize this doesn’t always happen.) My kids made friends at scout camp and girls camp long before they could attend stake dances or youth conferences. It broadened their friendship base, which helps when the inevitable ward youth drama creeps in. It does help that our area has a lot of tri-stake youth activities.

    I also believe there needs to be a balance between youth and adult needs within a ward. You do a disservice to the empty-nesters/senior citizens if you only focus on the needs of the youth — just as you would with the youth/children if only the adult needs were addressed.

    I think the questions become: How do we individually handle these situations? Do we reach out and fellowship or befriend those who are transient as well as those who are long-time residents? Does realizing these situations exist change the way we personally serve in the Church? Most importantly in my mind: Do we become part of the solution and not part of the problem?

  70. For a substantial period of time all families with Mutual age children attended one ward in Manhattan. There also are, or have been, two to four units specialized by language as well as (currently) four under-30 singles wards as well as for a long time an over-30 singles ward. Latter-day Saints living in the same geographical area of upper Manhattan attend three different units (English, Spanish and YSA), and often don’t realize that there are other members of the Church living in the same apartment building as them. (And this is an area which is actually not much larger than that covered by wards in Utah.) This dispersion into units catering to different demographics, combined with the transience mentioned in the post, do indeed make it difficult to form any sense of saintly community.

    However, I wonder if the answer is not the opposite of that suggested in the post. The traditional strict geographical organization of the Church puts us into community with people we would not normally associate with, and sometimes makes it difficult to cater to particular demographics. But why are we in the Church — to serve or to be served? Difficult demographic combinations force us to expand our zones of service, force us to learn tolerance, force us to take account of others not like us. I wonder if something ineffable but precious is lost when we abandon strict geographic ward boundaries and start trying to structure the church around demographic niches.

  71. R. Biddulph says:

    In Chapel Hill / Durham, we’re combining the YM/YW from three wards into a single activity night. There is a single Scout troop.

    It is a step toward what you suggest.

  72. Hey everyone I’m sitting in a hotel over the weekend attempting to find a ward in manhattan to attend on the 26th of august when I ran across your articles ……
    I … we have lived in many many wards over the past 30 years with youth without youth transient v.s. literally 3 and 4 generation familes….. and I really believe that we are suppose to solve these issues the best we can without disparaging situations that might bother us…. those students moving in and out need to be embraced they are our future. and those moving about might slow themselves from frequent moves if they feel needed. I say this with the greatest of respect to all. simply extend yourself to all with open arms and compassion and all will be well…
    best regards,
    Brother and friend