LDS Wards and American Metropolitics

William Morris is a gentleman scholar and principal voice at A Motley Vision, the leading blogosphere destination for Mormon arts and culture commentary, discussion and news. This guest post is the product of years of begging and cajoling to get him to participate here at BCC.

American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality by Myron Orfield* deals with issues that are familiar to (and in many cases directly experienced by) most Americans — urban sprawl and central city decay, obsession with school district boundaries, long commutes, worry over crime stats, etc. In fact, that’s part of the point of the book: this stuff affects everyone.

Orfield writes:

An evolving pattern of intense, unequal competition and inefficient, environmentally damaging local land use threatens every community and region, undermining the nation’s promise of equal opportunity for all. Geographic stratification has already has devastating consequences for the minority poor. Now it has begun to diminish the quality of life of working- and middle-class Americans and to circumscribe opportunities. Sprawling development is gobbling up land with no corresponding growth in supporting infrastructure — schools, roads, transportation, sewerage. This unplanned growth endangers public health, the environment, and the quality of life for people in every region. Protests against the current pattern of development show that no group — not even the wealthiest suburb — is fully satisfied with the status quo. (1)

One of the things that Orfield does well is to back up his diagnosis of the problems (and his prediction of future problems) with color coded maps based on data like percentage of children receiving free or reduced price lunch, communities tax capacity, etc. All of these maps can be found on the Metropolitan Area Research Corporation Web site (you can also download a 24-page summary of the book there). I came into the book expecting to have some of the conventional wisdom I had accumulated over the years to be disputed. Instead, I was surprised to find that the CW about which cities were “good to live in” for the two areas I’m familiar with (San Francisco Bay Area, Twin Cities) was spot on. And to a surprising degree of specificity.

Let me back up for a second. The concept of white flight isn’t new or unique to Orfield. But he isn’t afraid to show that changes in the suburbs (and the problems of sprawl, specifically) are very much tied in with racism. The pattern is this:

As central cities decay, African Americans and Hispanics who are able to (usually those with a higher level of education and thus a higher income) get out. They move to inner ring suburbs. This fact doesn’t cause immediate white flight. Most whites aren’t going to leave because a black family move in to a house on the block. A few might. But once the percentage of non-Asian minorities in the local schools reaches a certain level (about 20%), white flight begins in earnest. It doesn’t matter if the performance of the school actually hasn’t changed, the perception is that it’s not as good and that leads to white flight from the inner ring suburbs to the outer ring suburbs. And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As whites leave, more minorities move in and more houses are left empty (or aren’t built — no in-filling of housing units) and the tax base is hurt and it becomes possible for minorities who may not have the resources and educational base that the initial move-ins did to move. Many of these families may have been able to improve their status if the suburb was healthier (and Orfield discusses some examples in Chicago where families who had been living in the projects got moved to suburbs that were in good shape and their kids did very well), but it isn’t. And finally, if the suburb becomes vulnerable enough gang activity moves in which only worsens the downward spiral. Meanwhile, the suburb itself doesn’t have the resources and infrastructure to cope with “inner-city” problems. And this is a process that is supported by real estate agents who steer whites away from such suburbs and steer non-Asian minorities into such suburbs, thus accelerating segregation in the housing market.

On the one hand, that’s not a problem, right? As long as you can afford to live in the nicer areas, your family is fine. But Orfield shows how the problems with our metropolitan areas affect everybody. And this was the part of the book that surprised me the most and led to this post.

Specifically, Orfield looks at the data and categorizes metropolitan municipalities as:

At-Risk, Segregated
At-Risk, Older
At-Risk, Lower Density
Bedroom Developing
Affluent Job Center
Central City

I won’t go into detail about the at-risk suburbs. They should be pretty obvious. But Orfield points out that Bedroom Developing suburbs are also at risk — and these are the areas where most people (and, in my experience, most Mormons) live. Bedroom Developing is the category most outer ring suburbs fall in to. They seem like healthy suburbs. They generally have good, even great schools. A lot of young to middle-age families. Thriving retail sections. Lots of working professionals and skilled blue collar workers.

However, such suburbs suffer because their tax base doesn’t adequately support all the services they are expected to provide. They are often comprised of lots of single family homes and larger town houses which are not money makers for a community as they soak up a lot of resources. Since they are in the outer ring, their utilities infrastructure (especially sewage) is not what it should be which can lead to problems down the road. And, above all, their schools are crowded because so many families live in the area. And schools are a huge drain on a community’s resources. The reason their tax base is weak because it relies on retail and on developing new housing developments. And as more people pour into a Bedroom Developing community the difficulties increase — and if something happens to kill new development and retail, the stresses to the tax base increase. In addition, these communities, because of the tax base vulnerability, end up competing with each other, offering tax incentives to businesses that, for the most part, wouldn’t be leaving the metro area but can get major breaks by playing one suburb off another. This dilutes the overall tax base for the area as a whole. These are not bad places to live (except for the long commutes) by any means. But they are vulnerable.

Affluent Job Centers also suffer from the way that metropolitan areas have developed. First of all, there are less of them than one might think. I was surprised to see that Orfield classes many of the suburbs that I had though of as affluent as bedroom developing. Places like the Lafayette-Orinda-Moraga and Danville-San Ramon in the Bay Area. Granted some bedroom developing suburbs are more vulnerable than others, but they are all vulnerable. Affluent Job Centers have a lot of non-retail businesses. They have fewer small single-family homes and more apartment buildings, town homes and large homes. All of this leads to a much stronger tax base. These communities also often aggressively slow down development in their area in order to preserve what they have. But, of course, what happens is the metropolis grows around them, gobbling up the open space that they weren’t able to protect (because it falls outside their city boundaries) and increasing traffic in the affluent job center.

If it’s not obvious by now, I bring all this up in this context because the problems with American metropolitan areas have a direct impact on the Church. In fact, I’d say the LDS Church is more vulnerable to these issues than any other denomination because of the Church’s policy of geographic congregations and its’ practice of a lay ministry.

As inner ring suburbs decay, stress is put on LDS wards in those suburbs. Wards in At-Risk Older suburbs (and central city neighborhoods) are filled with old people and (if there are apartments/cheap town homes) very young families. These are the wards with no deacons. Wards in At-risk Segregated suburbs tend to be small, lack experienced leaders and have a lot of convert families (many of whom are minorities). I love such wards, but they can put heavy burdens on the members living there who are best equipped for leadership positions. They also tend to have very low activity rates.

Meanwhile, Bedroom Developing wards are the bread and butter of the church. They are usually thriving, active wards. But just like the schools in these communities are bursting at the seams and take up a lot of resources so the primary and youth programs take up a lot of resources. And because they are outer ring suburbs and the men (and some women) are working professionals, long commutes and work hours make it all the more difficult to meet church obligations. Turnover can often be high in such wards, and because of the turnover rate and the sheer number of families, some families may not integrate into the ward and go inactive.

And although they are few, Affluent Job Center Wards are great places to be, but they also tend to mean a lot of stake callings for their members (because they have the time and means to serve) which means that they aren’t immune to the issues going on in the other suburbs since they aren’t ever big enough to be their own stake.

In addition, ward buildings are often in the inner ring suburbs which means longer commutes to the building for those living in the outer ring and the possibility that the neighborhood around the building will decline. And if buildings are built in the outer ring suburbs and especially if they are stake centers, then the members in the inner ring have to get there for any stake activity or business (and these are the members who are the most likely to have transportation difficulties).

We recently moved from an At-Risk Older ward to a Bedroom Developing ward. We very much enjoyed our time in the Oakland First (first and now only — it is a classic example of how white flight has shrunk and even killed off what once were thriving LDS wards). It is one of the great liberal wards of the Church. However, our friends kept leaving for the suburbs once their children were of school age. And we did the same. Our current ward is one of the most active, thriving wards in the Twin Cities area. Our suburb hits that sweet spot of good schools and affordable housing that attracts Mormon families. We love it. But at the same time, I can see how the same issues that affect the suburb also affect the ward.

I won’t go in to detail about Orfield’s solutions as that as the part that gets political (although I was heartened to see that he criticizes many of the “classic” Democrat solutions to these problems, including empowerment zones, and takes the main minority advocacy groups to task for putting emphasis on the wrong things). If you are interested, see pages 16-22 of his free summary of American Metropolitics. But basically, he sees the need for regional approaches to the issues of sprawl and land-use, transportation, housing, and basic services (such as sewage, garbage and public safety). And in some ways, this what the Church does — or at least where the percentage of members is low enough that a stake comprises several of the various types of communities.

But I wonder how much the housing market crisis and the acceleration of sprawl that has happened since this book was published in 2002 is going to affect negatively LDS wards. And I wonder what, if anything, we as members can do to affect both the health of our wards and our metropolitan areas. I welcome all anecdotes, proposals, corrections, and alternative views.


(1) The book is published by the Brookings Institution, Orfield is a professor at the University of Minnesota and was elected to serve in the Minnesota Legislature as a member of the DFL. I guess that makes him a “liberal” for the purposes of teh Internets. I have no idea if the solutions he offers would work. I’m not an economist, sociologist or political scientist. Orfield does, however, stress that some of the biggest champions and implementers of what he views as good policy have been Republican governors and mayors. But me — I’m using this book as a source because it’s the one that crossed my path and because the diagnosis of what’s wrong and the data used to back that up seems pretty right on to me. Feel free to dispute the diagnosis in the comments, but be cool and follow BCC’s comment policies. But I’ll say straight up now: I don’t know enough to strenuously back up Orfield so don’t be disappointed if I don’t play along.


  1. TA Esplin says:

    Ward boundaries are easier to change than municipal boundaries. Thus, stakes a way to respond to demographic changes that city governments lack.

  2. TA:

    Very true.

    However, changing ward boundaries can often be a traumatic event for many of the members of the affected wards and the new wards don’t necessarily solve all the problems caused by the changes to neighborhoods and cities caused by urban sprawl.

    I’m not suggesting that either the LDS Church or individual members should or can change things. I do think, though, that this is an issue that we should be aware of and discuss.

  3. And thanks for posting this, Steve. I’m actually neither a gentleman nor a scholar. Everything else is true — except you forgot to mention the minor threats.

  4. I don’t have a lot of time and I’m exhausted due to a new baby, but this subject is something I spend quite a bit of time with in grad school. It is also something that Mormons seem to have some unwritten rules about, including the fluidity provided by “changing boundaries,” but don’t really think through consequences.

    It has been my observation, often living in more marginal, inner-city areas, that resources of all kinds go towards the more affluent areas. This is true even in the church. On one hand, it is understandable; that is where the church members live. However, it is difficult for me to get over the church abandoning buildings (and therefore the community) in favor of the next ring of suburbs.

    For instance, in Ohio, I live literally 4 blocks away from a unique, lovely, non-traditional church building that was built by members about 60 years ago. It was sold off years ago (most likely because it is tiny – but note that it had a huge piece of land next to it and presumably could have been expanded) and few people even know it was originally an LDS building. The current owners struggle to keep it up and it changes hands often. In the meantime, I have to drive 10 miles (approx 17 minutes) to get to my ward building for a gigantic ward that covers a gigantic geographic region. Most Sundays I mourn that we don’t have a smaller, community based ward. And most weekdays I mourn that we can’t use that building as a base to make a real difference in a neighborhood that is teetering on the edge.

    Next annoyance are temple locations. I have occasion to spend school terms in Portland OR. I can be completely carless except for the temple – it is almost impossible to get to via public transit. Apparently only worthy members with a car should have an accessible temple.

    Point (I think – it is late) to both of these anecdotes: we tend to think that we should just rearrange ward boundaries to match the current population/priesthood trends and build temples in areas that we are sure will not depreciate since they are harder to shed when the neighborhood changes. But the way we manage church property can have a significant impact on a neighborhood and community and vice versa.

  5. sister blah 2 says:

    #1 and #2–Members can adjust. But oh the real estate headaches for the church!

    The stake I lived in previously was in rapid transition from white (suburban) to majority-minority. The stake was down to 1 ward per building and had 2 stake-center-ammenitiy buildings in the stake. Eventually the church had to sell one building. This was some years ago, they’ve probably sold more.

    Where I live now is one of the most rapidly growing counties in CA for suburban development. The real estate is staggeringly unaffordable here and the church cannot really afford to buy. But we’ve got 3 or 4 wards per building and bursting at the seems in each ward. But it gets more complicated–the inner ring part of our stake is declining in members, the members there have more problems than in other wards, and there is not nearly enough solid leadership. The outer ring part of our stake is exploding. So already everybody commutes towards the buildings in the inner ring part of the stake, to sort of compensate, but then nobody is going to the building that is really closest to them….

    There is no way the church can afford to buy, build and sell buildings to match the 5-year-cycling whims of real estate. It would take longer than that to permit and build even after they successfully researched and purchased a property. It’s completely nuts.

  6. Stephanie says:

    I definitely see this in my area. Three wards in the developing area drive 25 minutes to an older building in an older part of town. It is not too bad, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable with youth walking down the street alone at night near the church. We all wish we could have a building in our own town, but who would use the older one?

  7. Stephanie says:

    My brother lives near San Francisco. In their stake, they have divided the wards up like a pie. So, each ward has some of each ring in it. That is all I know, but it does seem like one good solution for the church to take care of its members and even out the potential leadership.

  8. William,

    Thanks for this summary. Your post is very timely for me. I’ve been traveling for work this week and have had much opportunity too think about sprawl, segregtion, decaying older neighborhoods, long commuting times–everything you wrote about. You have really helped put into words many of the feelings I have had this week. I look forward to reading Orfield’s book.

  9. Orfield said, “Protests against the current pattern of development show that no group — not even the wealthiest suburb — is fully satisfied with the status quo.”

    Welcome to mortality! I have hopes that in the Millennium we will learn how to build ideal living/working spaces.

    Even when municipalities try to revitalize inner city areas, they often end up as enclaves for the wealthy. It will be interesting to see how the new development next to Temple Square in Salt Lake turns out.

    I’ve lived in just about all the areas described in this post. I’ve seen the negative, as well as the positive impacts on wards and stakes.

    I think we can choose to find all the things that are wrong with our living conditions and our ward and stake; or we can choose to focus on the many good things, and the opportunities we have to making things better.

    The happiest wards/branches I have lived in have been the ones where leadership and members decided to strive for unity and fellowship by doing the best they could, no matter how discouraging their situation.
    President Monson seems to have learned much in his experience as a very young bishop in a ward with dozens of widows. It probably helped refine his character, and prepare him for further service in the Church.

    In looking at LDS church history, it seems like early members had even more difficult conditions to cope with. At least most of us don’t have to deal with mobs; nor are we asked to go found a colony in the desert.

    IMO, Part of growing in the Gospel involves making sacrifices, and coming to regard the use of our time and resources as a meaningful way of dedicating our lives to the Lord.

    Where we live has a huge effect on our daily lives. Sometimes we can choose to move somewhere. Often circumstances don’t allow us much choice. Whether our lot be difficulties in travel, uncomfortable meeting conditions, lack of leadership, no deacons, or 65 Sunbeams (or all of the above!), we know that Heavenly Father is fully aware of our situation. In dealing with our geographical challenges, I truly believe that “all these things shall give [us] experience, and shall be for [our] good.” (D&C 122:7)

  10. I have noticed that the “perfectness” of an area for young families is often very short. Like a generation or so. In Chicago were I grew up it went like this. I am going to use a Jewish family that I knew quite well as an example. I am sure that Kevin B has seen this same pattern

    Grandparents grew up in the city proper
    Moved and raised their kids in Skokie (inner ring suburb)
    Kids married and raised their own kids in Buffalo Grove (next ring of suburbs)
    My friends kids when married would most likely live in say Long Grove or perhaps Libertyville the next ring of suburbs

    Race played a huge role in the initial move from the city to Skokie back in the 1950’s. After that it was aging housing stock and better schools in the next suburb out. So every generation the family moves another town out from the city center. This seems to be the American pattern. it holds true here in my Stake in North Texas as well.

  11. RoAnn writes:

    “I think we can choose to find all the things that are wrong with our living conditions and our ward and stake; or we can choose to focus on the many good things, and the opportunities we have to making things better.”

    I completely agree. This is less about individual responses and choices (except to point that the possible cumulative effects of such choices have consequences) and more about the fact that the LDS Church is affected, possibly more than any other religious institution*, by growth patterns and changes in urban/suburban environments and that these changes are caused by both political and economic factors and have consequences. And that those consequences, those changes in communities can put stresses on the Church organization and properties, its members and its missionary efforts.

    Obviously, one can be a happy, fulfilled, giving-back-to-the-community church member no matter where one lives.

    *Catholic parishes are under similar stresses (and are often even worse off financially) as are congregations from some of the older Protestant churches; however, although I may be wrong, I don’t know that Catholics have quite the same presence in the suburbs in quite the same way that Mormons do (not in terms of raw numbers but in terms of concentration of numbers across a metropolitan area and the patterns of movement over the decades).

  12. sister blah 2 says:

    Mr. Morries (or Brother Morris?)–

    Can this trend be traced in part to decreased funding for schools, especially auxilliary functions such as school nurse, counselor, etc (our schools don’t have any of those things anymore)? Here’s my conjecture: a well-funded school would be able to maintain a quality education for the “good” students, even in the face of some more difficult to manage students. Currently (where I live anyway), classrooms are so overcrowded and budgets are so stretched thin, that I feel things only have any chance of working if the students are 100% productive, self-directed, high-achieving, etc. In other words, the capacity of the school as an insitution to absorb challenging students while still functioning well for all has been totally eroded. So it becomes much more imperative for parents to find schools with homogenously high-achieving student bodies.

    Or is this giving parents too much credit, and they’re really just racist? :-(

  13. Sister blah:

    Call me William. Or Brother William. I’m old school that way.

    I’m not expert on any of this so I could be completely wrong. But that doesn’t stop us gentleman scholars…

    You are absolutely right: it’s not just racism. It definitely has to do with the capacity of a school to absorb students who come from an under-privilege background. That’s the reality of resources part of it and I don’t know that there’s any racism related to that at all. There’s also the perception part that gets calculated into a decision to live in (or leave) a particular school district. That’s where racism can come into play because perceptions may not match the realities — although, of course, at a certain point, the perception becomes the reality. This is what can happen to some of the stronger inner-ring suburbs if white flight becomes a factor. I think Hayward California is a good example of this. Brooklyn Park in the Twin Cities may also be an example.

    Maple Grove, where I live, is currently experiencing problems directly related to schools. The school district is comprised of most of Maple Grove, a bedroom community with a mostly retail tax base (thus the weaknesses I point out in the post*); Osseo, a much smaller at-risk older community; and Brooklyn Park, an at-risk segregated community. The school district has had some major funding problems and is going to need to close down some schools and turn other schools into “magnet” schools. This, of course, has led to major tensions among members of the three communities.

    I’d also note that well-funded schools these days don’t tend to be well-funded because of the state and/or municipality. They are well-funded because the community provides extra funds.

    The best example I can think of is the Lafeyette-Orinda-Moraga area of the Bay Area. Because of geography and a strong Bay Area economy (in the making three figures a year sector, at least), the community has managed to keep home prices high in part by keeping the quality of public education high by engaging in massive fundraising efforts to support the schools so they can offer drama and Chinese, etc. I realize that for some Bay Areans the thought of Lamorinda (I know, silly) being an at-risk suburb is laughable, but its housing mix is actually on the old side in some places and lots aren’t always big enough to create McMansions.

    But anyway, school funding is a major component of American metropolitical issues and fights.

    *It’s interesting. Maple Grove has been considered one of the prime retail areas. Not quite as tony as Edina, but it’s got some middle-class high-end retail places as well as a thriving Walmart and Super Target. But just in the past two months the number of spaces for lease in the older retail area of the town — the initial retail area that drew all the people — has skyrocketed.

  14. Thanks for adding the links, Steve.

  15. Re: “Oakland First (first and now only — it is a classic example of how white flight has shrunk and even killed off what once were thriving LDS wards)”

    Not dead yet!

  16. I’m not entirely sure how our ward or stake would/should be categorized. We are essentially inner city, in an area that 50 years ago was considered the suburbs. Our wards are a massive mix of high end professionals living in affluent houses and neightborhoods, working middle-class, with a smattering of welfare recepients and illegal immigrants. Our youth programs are on the small side but they exist – for instance our ward has roughly 6 priests, 5 teachers and 7 deacons. Their all active. We really don’t have any inactive youth, which is kind of amazing.

    I think one thing that has contributed to some of this success with keeping things integrated here is that we had a stake president about 10 years ago who stood up in Stake Conference and told everyone if they were thinking of moving to the suburbs, to quit thinking about it. Then he very seriously told us all that if we would stay in this stake we would be incredibly blessed. That our children would be blessed, etc. A lot of families listened.

    We’re so glad we did. Even though housing prices in the suburbs have taken a dive, our prices have stayed stable, even after the huge increases in value over the past few years. Our children have thrived in the local schools. And our commute is non-existent, which means more time to spend together as families.

    Leadership in our wards is tricky. Certainly we do not have the vast amount of people to choose from that a ward in Chandler would have, but we have enough good people to keep things running all the time. Interestingly, lately, we are seeing greater numbers of people who are moving to Phoenix from other cities for work relocation, chose to buy homes in the central corridor. Many of these people bring with them wonderful leadership skills, and often bright children as well.

    I guess my point is that I feel that somehow in this stake , a stake president had some insight into how our stake could become a solution for this on-going problem. I like to think perhaps in some small part we’ve all chosen to help make this area a great place to live, for mormons and non-mormons alike.

    I have one son graduating from high school this year, he’s been so happy and I’m so glad for the opportunities he’s had both in school and at church. I think so many families miss the boat when they just pack up and move to the suburbs. The city neighborhoods have so much to offer!

  17. Greg:

    Indeed. We love the Maple Grove ward, but we also miss Oakland First very much. Teaching EQ in Oakland First is definitely one of the highlights of my church service.

    It was interesting, though, to meet members of the Oakland First ward who still considered themselves Third Warders.

    Does anybody know how long ago Oakland still had three or four wards? I think there were at least two wards up until the early ’90s. Now there’s the Oakland First ward and the Oakland branch plus a Chinese branch.


    Thanks. That’s a very interesting story. I’m amazed (and heartened) that a stake president would make that kind of statement. I certainly can’t blame anyone who moves to the suburbs — heck, we left Oakland (although we are in Maple Grove because that’s where the in-laws moved to. I don’t know where we would have moved to if that hadn’t already been in place). But I think it’s important that we understand that where we choose to live has an impact on wards and stakes.

  18. As William points out, these are complicated issues. The factors also include constitutional mandates for school funding, the property tax revolt (Prop 13 in California), the mortgage interest tax deduction, environmental restrictions on infill development, the priority given car-related infrastructure versus public transit, etc.

    As for Lamorinda, just to give readers a sense of what William is talking about: a basic 3 bedroom 2 bath house in the area starts at about one million.
    For example:

  19. Bro. Jones says:

    #16 – That’s a really interesting story. If you wouldn’t mind sharing, would you be willing to say which city or state you’re in? Just curious.

    #4 – I hear you loud and clear about making temples (and often meetinghouses) inaccessible to public transportation. At one point I was a member in one of those “inner city at-risk” wards, and as one of the few active members I really bristled under the demands on my resources (7 home teaching families–yes, 7–and constant requests for car rides). I served when I could, but it seemed to me that locating Church buildings near Chicago public transportation infrastructure wouldn’t have been too difficult, and might have had a real positive impact on activity levels. But hey, I’m not in charge.

    And don’t even get me started on the “Chicago” temple. It’s practically in Wisconsin, and even less accessible by bus and train. Stinks to be you if you’re a faithful but poor member on the South Side or West Side of Chicago and want to go to the temple on a non-ward temple night.

  20. Bro. Jones,

    We live in central Phoenix. While they are many LDS people here in the greater metro area, the vast majority of them live in Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek, East of the city or Glendale and New River North and West of the City.

    The wards here in the central area do not grow much, while the wards in the suburbs expand at an insane pace.

  21. sister blah 2 says:

    You are absolutely right: it’s not just racism.

    I didn’t mean to imply racism is not a part of it. And I think that racism also plays a big role in the poor funding of public schools, as you said:

    I’d also note that well-funded schools these days don’t tend to be well-funded because of the state and/or municipality. They are well-funded because the community provides extra funds.

    People don’t want to spend money to educate Other kids, just People Like Us’ kids. So the overall school system is scandalously underfunded, then people make up for it with fundraising for their own schools, private lessons and tutors, etc.

    Also, IMNSHO, Prop 13 is a shoo-in for worst thing that’s ever happened to California. Don’t get me started…

  22. Jennifer in GA says:

    This isn’t just a problem for inner cities- it’s also a problem for those of us living in a more rural area. My stake is made up of six wards and three branches. Each unit covers multiple counties. To get from one end of the stake to the other is a two hour drive.

    My ward is in a city with a population of around 75,000 people. This is the city with the largest population in the stake. We have decent industry here, a good school system and affordable cost of living.

    We’ve lived in this ward for three years, eight years in the stake all together. In the past five years we have gone from two wards to one ward that struggles to staff the leadership positions. Families that come here tend to only stay for a few years before they move on to somewhere with a bigger primary/youth program/congregation/etc. Almost universally they say that they love the ward, love the area, but they want their children to have “more” from the church.

    Every single unit in my stake has this same exact problem. It is *extremely* frustrating for those of us who believe in building up Zion wherever we are. I firmly believe that when people are committed to an area the gospel will flourish and grow. I was in the stake YW presidency for 3 1/2 years. I can’t tell you how many youth told me that they didn’t come to more stake actvities because “no one was there” and that they were going to be going out to BYU anyway, where there are TONS of Mormons, so what did it matter if they didn’t know any of the other youth in the stake? I wanted to bang my head against the wall because they just. didn’t. get. it.

  23. Stephanie says:

    RoAnn, I think you are right that wealthy people going in and developing the inner city areas is what will end up happening. Is it a bad thing? No. As their money comes in, it creates opportunities for others to live there, too. If I had the money, I would love to take a look at which inner city areas I should invest in and develop. There is definitely a need. And the opportunity for profit. These rings can’t go on indefinitely.

  24. Yes, please let’s not get started on Prop. 13. But I’m very interested in all these examples of how wards and stakes are affected by metropolitan sprawl and changes in neighborhoods, schools, etc.


    That’s very interesting (and yes, frustrating). Thanks for sharing.

    I actually once gave a talk in church when I was a fairly recent RM living with my grandparents in a wealthy suburb that encouraged the teenagers to go to college in California instead of to BYU. I’d much rather see BYU be a place for LDS youth from areas where there aren’t many than a cheap place for California families to send their kids to because it’s “safe.” There are enough Mormons in California that the institute program could be really, really great there.

  25. In every “inner-city” ward I’ve ever lived in (that would be 3) they’ve had to bus in leadership from the suburbian wards. I understand it because usually no one in the congregation was capable of being the bishop but it felt strange to have an older wealthier white couple (bishop and wife) have to be assigned to us bc we couldn’t do it ourselves.

  26. Stephanie:

    You are right to a certain extent. But this is already happening in areas like Oakland and San Francisco, who are losing their working and lower-level professional class families which then exacerbates the problems with the school district as they lose pupils and thus funding (the rich tend not to have many kids).

    Actually, that’s another thing to think about in all this: Mormons and family size.

    I may have it wrong, but Orfield’s fear is that the cities may be revitalized (to a point) but that the inner ring suburbs become even more neglected in the process. And in many cases it is the inner ring suburbs where many of the LDS ward buildings are.

  27. #18,

    Just for some perspective.

    A 1500 sqft house on an average lot built in 1954 would be worth about 125K here in North Texas. It would be really really hard to sell and would not be worth renovating.

    Thats why y’all are moving here in such large numbers

    I am not trying to be controversial but if I lived in an area with a really weak youth program I would move.

  28. Some changes may be cyclical – and one question is whether the members (and, in terms of buildings, the Church) can wait out the cycle. My example is Alexandria, Virginia. When we left that area in 1994, the Mount Vernon stake had 4 “regular” wards, 1 singles ward, and a Spanish branch.
    Growth was stgnant, and the boundaries were redrawn to bring in 2 wards from suburbs further out. But a couple of years ago those wards were moved back into another stake. The Mt Vernon stake now has 7 family wards and 2 YSA wards, and the Spanish branch is now a ward. The stake has a new stake center, and needs an additional building — closer in than the stake center, in an area where acquisition will be tough. I suspect that the demographics of the wards are somewhat different than they were. Certainly youth programs are smaller — but then again, that seems to be true in the vast majority of units in North America. Maybe some reader who lives in the DC can comment on what’s happened in other suburbs and speculate on why the growth has occurred. One this is clear: everyone should be glad that the Church didn’t sell off the 1950s-era Alexandria building. Even closer in than the Mr Vernon Stake, I wonder whether anyone is wondering if there’s a way to re-acquire the original Washington Ward building.

  29. Jennifer in GA says:

    -I am not trying to be controversial but if I lived in an area with a really weak youth program I would move.-

    What, in your mind, constitutes a “really weak youth program”? And if the program you (or your teenager(s) are apart of is weak, aren’t you then part of the problem?

    Give me one committed leader and one committed youth over a large group of ambivalent leaders and youth any day!

    -I actually once gave a talk in church when I was a fairly recent RM living with my grandparents in a wealthy suburb that encouraged the teenagers to go to college in California instead of to BYU.-

    I was thrilled a few years ago when President Hinckley encouraged the youth and their parents to look to the colleges and universities in their home states, and build up those student wards and institute programs, rather than automatically going to BYU. It’s wise counsel.

    You can imagine my disbelief and shock when a few weeks later one of the YW presidents in my stake informed me that none of her young women would be attending Girls Camp that summer because she was taking a group of six Laurels out to Utah for that week to tour BYU. Nevermind the excellent four year university in their own city or the fact that these girls were getting the message from both their parents and leaders that their local unit was practically worthless. That’s just not cool in my book.

  30. In response to JrL above, Alexandria is bursting at the seams of our building. There are three wards (Alex I, II, and Crystal City) where when I arrived 10 years ago there was one. We’ve had inspired, even visionary leadership and have somehow attained a critical mass of families staying once their kids hit school rather than fleeing to the outer suburbs. I think it reflects something of a cultural shift. Along with many others, my wife and I consciously made the decision to buy at an exorbitant price. We gladly accept the tradeoff of cramped quarters and being a one car family for the benefits of a short (bike) commute, actually taking advantage of cultural opportunities in DC and the most dynamic friends and ward members I’ve ever experienced.

    The demographics are unusual for an LDS ward. We have millionaires and we have folks in government-subsidized housing. There will always be a transient element of students and newlyweds but the ward has learned how to use everybody for whatever term we have them. The youth program is, and probably always will be small. We try to compensate by combining by building and holding quarterly stake mutual. Our bishop regularly recruits graduating singles (31 y.o) and hip young newlyweds to give the youth leaders they can relate and look up to.

    What is particularly significant about Bro. Morris’ post is the notion that “stability” is really an illusion. All wards are evolving, particularly in areas of high growth. Church organization does allow for enough flexibility to accomodate and capitalize on this evolution but it takes strong leadership and a lot of faith.

  31. Anonymous says:

    I attend church in the Alexandria building and it is not entirely a pleasant experience. Parking is a nightmare and our overflow area is full each Sunday, so people end up sitting in the elder’s quorum room or the foyer. Not an easy way to feel part of the congregation. RS is held in the chapel, we outgrew the RS room several years ago. It just feels very impersonal. The wards are too much big and the space is too small. I’m sure that this is not limited to NVa. Kinda puts a damper on my desire to do missionary work ;)

    I don’t agree that the real estate in close-in NVa is out of the church’s price range. There will always be desirable areas that are expensive, just a fact of life.

  32. What a fascinating discussion.

    Regrettably, those of us who are super-movers often dodge the waves of change that a stake experiences. We pick the bustling-est ward we can afford, then discard them when, 3-5 years later, we move to another city. My apologies.

    I agree with Jennifer in GA. I wish we could get college-age kids to stay east of the Mississippi. When we count up all we’ve got in our ward, there are actually enough to have a really good young singles program–during the summer breaks.

    I have read that families these days must make a choice between affordable housing in risky neighborhoods, and mega-expensive housing in safe suburbs. I ask myself, Are neighborhoods risky because children are less supervised? Is this part of the fallout we get from two-income families? Please don’t take this as criticism for mothers working. There’s something really attractive about using our talents in the workplace. But I wonder if we have lost some of the good things from the mom-at-home days.

  33. Rechabite says:

    Does anybody know how long ago Oakland still had three or four wards? I think there were at least two wards up until the early ’90s.

    When I left Oakland in 1991, there were still three English-speaking congregations there–1st ward, 3rd ward, and 9th branch. The Polynesian wards and Asian branches were still in the Oakland stake then too.

  34. Eric Russell says:

    Yeah, the parking situation’s pretty bad at that Alexandria building. Not long ago I went there and had to do the rounds a couple times before getting a parking spot. Cool building though.

  35. Dan in Cincy says:

    This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart.

    We live in an inner-ring suburb that is mostly white and mid to upper class. Our youth programs are decent but I worry that when my kids reach YM/YW age (starting in 5 years or so) that they will not have many folks in the program. Most of the families besides ours are (law and med) students with kids, who inevitably move back out West when their schooling is done.

    It was to the point that we seriously considered moving, both intra-city and to another city. In the end we decided to move to another home in our same suburb (and ward)

    In somewhat of an ironic twist, about a month or so after we bought that new house, they combined our ward with the struggling downtown branch and split us into 2 wards. So we ended up moving wards anyways :-)

    The 2 wards are similar in makeup. They consist mostly of families with students / young kids, and more established families who (along with most of the leadership) live almost exclusively in our suburb. As an example, of the 6 bishopric positions in our new wards, 5 of the brethren live here.

    I also hear the previous comments about all the youth going out to BYU. It’s one of my pet peeves – but it’s hard to be the “only” ones staying here I guess.

    Anyways, like I said – we decided to stay here and stick it out. In the end, we decided that we couldn’t know what this ward or anywhere else would be like in 5-10 years.

  36. Bandanamom says:

    I think this is an interesting discussion.

    I would like to say to those who’ve expressed concern about a youth program and contemplating a move based on that concern – I do not think small numbers of youth necessarily constitute a poor program.

    We’ve seen shifts in our wards here in this stake over the past few years where we’ve had small groups and REALLY small groups. I think our children have been extremely well served by the small size in numerous ways. There is a lot of leadership opportunity and the kids are encouraged to have their friends attend regularly (most of their friends are non-members). This helps normalize the church for their friends and families of those friends. We’ve found this to be a great tool to help people’s perceptions of the church.

    In addition, because our kids are forced to seek out non-LDS friends, our children have found amazing non-LDS friends – friends I do not think they probably would have sought out had we lived in one the suburbs bursting at the seams with mormon youth. I honestly can’t think of anything that has been a downside to being one of only a few mormon youth in our area.

    I admit though that we still have great school options in this area – we have open enrollment and so it’s easy to find a good school in the area. If that were not the case it might be tougher. However, we do have friends who send their kids to one of the worst inner city schools (but they do have an IB program there) – they think it is a character building experience for their children and 5 of their 8 kids have graduated from that school quite happy with their experience.

  37. I suspect I am in a stake next to Bandanamom’s. Three of our children graduated from North High’s IB program and received an exceptional education and really enjoyed their time there, and made many friends of all income levels, races and backgrounds. Our fourth child did not like North, and transferred to Central High, and had a good experience there as well.

    Our stake dissolved one ward a couple of years ago, and our stake’s membership level is steady or slowly declining.

    We have not noticed much of a move back into our area. Our ward has about three active young men, and some Sundays none of them are present (and the young men leaders attend their own priesthood quorums). We do, however, have 9 or 10 boys in our scout troop, most of whom belong to other faiths. The other seven family wards in our stake have similar numbers of youth (perhaps slightly more, but not much).

  38. Bandanamom says:

    We must live pretty near each other David as my children should attend North, technically. Our oldest is at Shadow Mountain. We’ve had friends with happy outcomes with their children going to North, Central and Camelback though.

  39. Our family lived in a ward with, what I would consider, a struggling youth program for years. The ward was in the Midwest but was very culturally diverse with a majority of youth being of Pacific Island background. To my mind the greatest factor standing in the way of a great youth program was the cultural makeup of the ward. The YM of the PI culture did not participate in Scouting, nor did their families have any interest in it. The result for the YM was that basketball was the prevailing activity on mutual night. Take into account that in the PI cultures basketball is often a blood sport, my smaller, palagi (white) sons and other nonathletic youth didn’t play for fear of their life. This went on for the entire 15y years we lived there and through the tenure of several Bishops. If we complained about it we were told that basketball was the only way to get these youth to come to activity night at all. There was a scouting program, but it was always perceived as a secondary program and appeared to have little support. What scouting my boys got, I mostly provided myself in our home. In fifteen years we saw few eagle ranks attained and, more importantly, even fewer young men called on missions. We moved to northern VA two years ago and, though the cost of living is exorbitant, it has been the best thing for my remaining teenagers. We have a strong youth program for the YM and YW and my children are thriving in the gospel. I only wish My older sons, now inactive, would have had such a great program and leaders in their youth, maybe they’d still be active today. Sometimes moving may be the only option.

  40. William, nice work. This is a great post and the description of bedroom developments is very much applicable to the Maple Grove Community. High taxes, little support for schools, reduction of teachers, high class sizes, slowed housing market, and stalled tax base from large companies and new businesses. Looking forward to chatting with you guys more about white flight, Metropolitics and Oak Town.

  41. Boston Review story: On Borrowed Time: Urban decline moves to the suburbs by Michael Gecan.

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