Dinner Groups

When we bought the house we now live in back in the late 80s, we had to move into a different ward in our stake. I loved our old ward, but I also loved our new house, so the switch had to be done. I went into it with low expectations; I figured from experience that it would be at least six months, maybe more like a year, for us to begin to make friends and fit into the new ward. I had braced myself not to be disappointed and to take the long view of (eventual) inclusion into the fabric of the new ward. And yet, as it turned out, we began to mesh well with our new ward very quickly. The reason I believe was something the ward did called “dinner groups.”

I had never experienced this in any other ward setting, but I thought it was fantastic. It wasn’t an official church program; technically it was all voluntary, but it was the baby of our bishop’s wife, and almost everyone participated. I wish I could remember the details better, but as I recall, the entire ward was broken down into dinner groups. I forget the size of each group; maybe 8, or 10 or 12. The bishop’s wife made these assignments like a Soviet planner; I don’t know her methodology, but every group had an interesting mix of singles, young marrieds and older folks.

So once a month on a given evening (and I don’t recall that either; maybe the such and so Thursday of each month or something, although I think the group could change it if they wanted to) two dinner groups would get together at someoone’s home for dinner and conversation (and if you wanted to, something more such as games, but that was up to the individuals involved). This would happen all over the ward, so in theory the entire ward was having dinner in various people’s homes that evening. Not everyone would make it every time, so the number of people would be manageable, and it was sort of like a potluck dinner in someone’s home. Then the next month, the dinner groups would rotate, and your group would have dinner with a different dinner group.

It was all voluntary, but my recollection is that almost everyone participated. And this practice had the following effects:

– We quickly became good friends with the other people in our dinner group, because we shared dinner and conversation in someone’s home with those people each month.

– We also got to know most of the other people in the ward rather quickly, because due to the rotating of groups each month, over time we had had dinner and conversation in someone’s home with the vast majority of the ward roster.

– This was an easy way to integrate singles into the ward, as the building block was not couples but a group into which singles naturallly fit.

– Although hard core inactives didn’t participate, many ward inactives were involved in dinner groups. These would be the only church-related functions these people were involved in, but as a result the active and inactive members got to know each other socially, and it made it much easier to reach out for things like home teaching visits when a foundation of friendship had already been established.

I don’t recall how long this practice lasted, but probably no more than a couple of years. I think it died when our bishop moved, since his wife had been the guiding force of the program, and the program needs someone to nurture it along–it won’t just keep going all on its own. But I was very glad for the dinner groups, since we quickly became friends with everyone else in the ward in a setting outside of the church building.

Today I look around my ward and am embarrassed to realize that I only really know the old-timers; more than half of the ward are people whose names I don’t even know. A directory with pictures would be helpful. But I also think the dinner groups of my first ward in this area would be another way to grease the skids of establishing actual friendships with the other people in the ward.

(This post is meant to be a longish comment to Julie’s post about retention over at T&S.)


  1. Marjorie Conder says:

    We are oldtimers in a ward that has been in transition for about a decade. In times past I made it a point to meet and learn the names of at least 2 new people a week (including children). I’m sorry to say that somehow I got away from that. As of this next Sunday, I’m going to pick it up again.

  2. The Other Brother Jones says:

    In my ward, the Elders Quorum has a BBQ contest about 4 times a year. We all go to someone’s home and BBQ a something. Everybody talks up how good or exotic their recipe is. the only rule is that it must touch a grill. We get a judge (the host and his wife maybe) to select a winner and he gets his name engraved on a plaque. This has worked well to pull in some less-active or non member spouses so we get to know them a bit in a non-religious setting.

  3. One thing you can do is to start inviting singles and couples (with or without children) over to your house for dinner. If you have space, even more than one set at a time. I think the reason we have the HT and VT programs is that we’ve become used to being isolated from our neighbors. Its these kind of casual, not committee directed, non-calling, interactions that build the relationships we need in a ward.

  4. These used to be done in often in the church, but included gospel study during or after dinner. Think book groups a la eq or hp. I heard that was discouraged by the church a few years back, but I don’t see how discussing the gospel in homes could be bad.

  5. racerxisalive says:

    We’ve been doing a dinner group thing like that here outside Dallas for the last two or three years now- they aren’t monthly though, just quarterly. There are generally 4 families per group. One different thing is that you can sign up to be in a group with or without kids- we usually get a babysitter and sign up for a group without kids. It’s been a lot of fun, and my wife and I look forward to them.

  6. The Other Brother Jones says:

    It’s me again
    We used to have “Break the Fasts”. somebody would volunteer to host and everybody was invited over after church for a big pot luck food fest. This has waxed and waned over the years. It has been sponsored by the EQ, but mostly is is an informal, non church directed thing. At times specific families were invited, and sometimes it was opened up to everybody.

    We have also started doing a ward progressive dinner for the adults. We get together in groups of about 4 couples for an appetizer, then go to smoewhere else in groups of anout 8 – 10 couples for a main course, then get everybody together at one place for dessert.

    I think these things work best with less formal church oversight, and lots of social mixing.

  7. Kevin has the current Ward ever resolved itself from the dissolution of your original Ward a number of years ago (has it been 6?) and the assimilation of half the original Ward into the existing other Ward that met in that building?

    I often felt like the diaspora remained unmoored as a result of that abrupt transition. But then again we moved out less than 2 years after that occurred.

    There was an attempt at some point to reimplement Dinner groups many years ago but I recall that the effort fizzled because it wasn’t well organized. A strong organizer and cheerleader is the grease on the skids that makes this succeed. I have seen success with it in other Wards though and agree that it’s key to getting to know other members. I recall when I was a boy that my parents used to hold progressive dinners (where you go from house to house as a group and each course is served) but I suspect that is both too much travel and too much time to be practical in many large Ward boundaries.

    My wife loves to cook and loves to invite people over for dinner on Sundays. So we have as a result done our own little dinner groups on Sunday afternoons where I challenge her to regularly invite members and non-members (like neighbors) we don’t already know well. There are some regulars who either have kids the children get along well with or whose company we particularly enjoy, but she does a great job of ensuring new young couples, new converts, or old timers and all of those in between are invited at some point during the course of the year. She started doing this well before I was in the Bishopric and I appreciate now that it enables me to build better relationships and get to know the individuals and families in the Ward.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Alain, the dissolution of the old ward has indeed been hard to fully recover from.

    I agree that the same effect of a formalized dinner group program can be achieved by less formal dinners one simply initiates on one’s own. A few months ago a couple in the ward invited us, another couple and a couple of singles over for dinner and games, and it was lovely. We need more social interaction outside of Church, I think.

  9. Bethany says:

    That sounds like a lot of fun but only works in wards with small boundaries. My ward boundaries extend almost into Kansas and 20 miles south of Omaha. My YW president is traveling 80 miles just to visit me tonight. I am the only one with teenagers south of the ward building. The stake building is in Lincoln. I am grateful for a temple in Omaha, but it does get hard at times.

    It would be great to find ways to bring people who live in huge ward boundaries together. Most of our ward is inactive because of it. Coming from huge wards in Texas to a small rural ward has been hard, even 10 years later. Cost of gas makes it hard for some people to go to church as well.

    I think the Church has discouraged a lot of these parties in the name of political correctness. After all, if x family can’t come because of y reasons, than you are excluding them and that’s not fair. We were told while living in Texas that we couldn’t take the missionaries out to dinner any more because some families couldn’t afford to do it.

    We need social activities outside of church settings..regardless of where you live.

  10. rameumptom says:

    Our high priest group (and wives) has once a month dinners – sometimes at restaurants, and sometimes in a member’s home. We invite all the single and widowed sisters, as well. It makes for a very fun time to meet. We often have 20+ people attending.

    Since it isn’t as complex as the dinner groups (we’ve had those in the past, as well) are to maintain, it is easy just to let everyone know the date and location, and let whomever show up that is interested.

  11. We likewise had been in a ward (or variations of it) for some years (15 at least) when our ward was dissolved and we became a part of another ward. That ward welcomed us and we (at least my wife and I and fellow warders with whom we had established friendships) felt little discomfort at the dissolution. My wife and I then bought a single story which was but a mile from our old house and even closer to our building. Within 9 months we were given the news of certain changes, same including the 8 active families in our two subdivisions being transferred to another ward and our ward being moved to another building. This time the change in wards was not a joyous occasion. Our new ward has a history of no choir, no real activities being attended by anyone, ward temple night being once a quarter (our old ward was once a month), and so on. I was given a home teaching route…for three families who was likewise transferred with us, my wife was called to teach in primary so no involvement with the Relief Society…..We met with the Bishop to discuss our feelings and concerns, he basically telling us we were not the first to come to him and that in fact, members of the ward had come to him before the addition of our 8 families with similar concerns…. He seemed almost reconciled to the fact he could do nothing. I realize no one individual can make that much of a difference but when your leadership has the mindset of nothing new on the horizon, how much more I long to be back in my old ward…..

  12. In my wife’s ward there was a family that would have other families, one at a time, over for lunch after church services every week. It was always the same simple meal I am told, canned tomato soup with popcorn; the kind of thing that could be easily done week after week.

    One nice thing about dinner groups such as Kevin Barney described is that they provide a good setting to know spouses who are not members of the church and allow them to be friends of the church.

  13. Melissa says:

    I attempted my own program of this nature a few years ago, in an attempt to find *someone* in my ward who I could have as an actual friend (and one or two for the husband as well). We had moved into the area knowing no-one and I was a lonely, lonely stay at home mother. I am sorry to say it was a miserable failure. My invitations either went unanswered or were met with “Oh, those dates don’t work for us, let’s try it again another time,” with that other time never occurring. I succeeded exactly twice, but no close friendships came out of those dinners. I am certain that your program proceeded because it appeared to have the blessing of authority, whereas I was just some tired-looking new stranger. I had to wait seven years before somebody moved into the ward who finally responded to my overtures of friendship. Sometimes I really struggle to love my ward. I should try again, there are some newer families now.

  14. It seems so odd that even dinners with friends have to be official meetings. So sad. Reading about the early days in Nauvoo, dinners, ‘calling on friends’, picnics and holidays were part of the society. It’s so sad that we are so removed from that nowadays. Didn’t the church just abolish ward activities committees? Mmmmmmm. I’m reminded of the most common compliant of visiting teaching, assigned not authentic friendships. Then,bwhen people reach out to do something authentic (like Melissa) it isn’t accepted either. Are we looking at perhaps a very introverted or overwhelmed society that is pushing back against friendships in general?

  15. Our singles’ ward is socially daunting in its enormity (about 500 people) and the monthly dinner group program started a couple years ago has become very popular, for the reasons you outline–it helps you get to know new people in a natural setting. Ours is an official ward program. I’ve been participating consistently the whole time it’s been offered and only had to endure a couple of negative experiences in exchange for dozens and dozens of new friends–several have become close friends–and I even got a couple dates out of it.

    The way our ward works it, if someone wants to get to know a particular person better (or wants to be stay with a particular friend in order to be more socially comfortable) they can secretly request to be in the same group as that person, but otherwise the groups are designed to mix the ward up as much as possible–though the dinner group directors do occasionally use what they know about people’s interests to bring together strangers who seem particularly likely to enjoy each other’s company. It’s also unique among our ward activities in that the men seem to have as much or more interest than the women, and a few of the men have figured out that hosting dinner groups regularly gives them a chance to impress large numbers of women with their homes and hospitality. Every few months the groups meet in separate classrooms of the church (right after the block on Sunday) rather than in homes, to help include more of those who rely on others for rides to Church activities. I rarely hear anything but praise for the program. I’m a big fan, being naturally introverted myself, and needing help being as socially daring as a Mormon is called upon to be :)

    I have been close friends with those called to run the program, however, and it’s hard and frustrating getting people and food where they need to be and dealing with flaky hosts/hostesses and guests assigned to bring dessert who bail at the last minute. Quite the logistical feat, particularly in such a large ward, but in my view, well worth the effort. I can’t see it being a good program to implement formally churchwide, but it’s a good fit for our ward.

  16. I didn’t go to it, but last week our ward had a FHE night. I heard it was absolutely terrible and that it was a disaster. If I am going to a ward social event, I want to be free to socialize with who I want. A dinner party is a perfect opportunity for this. We also no longer have a ward activities director so maybe they have done away with it. Stupid idea in my mind. How is the ward supposed to act like a family when we never really get to see and talk with each other? Our ward has even eliminated any time people had to chat before Sunday School by making us stay and listen to more music after Sacrament Meeting. Our ward boundaries are so huge as to make any regular events impossible, but maybe if our infrequent events were actually, you know, GOOD people might come.

    I am in the worst demographic because I am over 30, unmarried, and have no children. There are activities for old people, activities for young people, activities for “young marrieds”, and activities for parents. They tell my group to essentially go find our own way–too bad, so sad.

  17. Fred Zundel says:

    Kevin, I just received and am beginning to read Contagious Holiness: Jesus’ Meals With Sinners, by Craig Blomberg, of How Wide the Divide fame, who surveys meals in the Old Testament, intertestamental period, and New Testament and appears to be arguing how Jesus uses these occasions not only to enhance friendship (as you admirably would promote) but to promote moments of grace and conversion for those present, which could be an added possible dimension to the meals you are talking about. I wish I had more to share,as I am just getting into the book, but I thought of your May 23rd piece when I received the book and began reading and thought it might be worth sharing. I love what you are doing with your blog.

  18. Was part of a church dinner group in southern cal. It was great and we really got to know the people that came on a much more personal level, just as you described. However, we soon realized that some people were repeat visitors while others in our ward had never made it to our home. Found out that the “mean girls” were in charge and made sure they only went to the homes of people that they wanted to get to know. Due to people’s complaints, comments on home cleanliness, cooking skills or lack thereof, etc. the bishopric disbanded the whole thing. We called it the Zion experiment that clearly failed. Welcome to Babylon!

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