Family-Centered, Church-Supported Thoughts About (Not Yet) Attending a New(ish) Ward

That’s our ward building, right there. We call it the “Westlink Building,” because its address is along Westlink Avenue, here on the west side of Wichita, Kansas. It’s more than a half-century old, having been built by the Mormon faithful here long before the church’s building program was centralized, back when local units needed to raise their own money and, perhaps, pour their own concrete and lay their own stones. Today, meetings were held there for the first time in months. Despite having attended church in that building ever since moving into our Wichita home–also on Westlink Avenue, just a third of a mile away, an easy Sunday walk–back in 2006, this week we weren’t there.

There are many reasons for that, as there are in any individual or family’s decision to not attend a regular meetings of the church community they’ve committed themselves to. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, those reasons multiply. So far as us Mormons go, maybe you live in an area where church leaders–whether regional or stake or local–have decided that church meetings of any sort remain too risky, so there’s no meeting to attend, anyway. Or maybe you live in an area where church meetings have been brought back on very a limited basis, but you’ve been strongly encouraged to continue with home church instead. Or maybe sacrament meetings have restarted and you’ve been invited back, but because of illness in your own the family or worries about the health of–or about the health precautions not being taken by–other church members, you’re electing not to attend at this time, perhaps with (or perhaps without) the approval of local leaders. And then there are…other motivations.

Maybe you’ve just really enjoyed home church. Maybe the Sunday school lessons or scripture lessons you’ve constructed, perhaps making use of many advanced online resources, are just so much superior to what you’ve ever experienced in your actual ward or branch. Maybe you’ve been grateful to escape the admittedly-sometimes-dysfunctional ward arrangements that have haunted your ward responsibilities and interactions for years–the overbearing priesthood leaders, the unruly Primary kids, the judgmental folks in the pews. Maybe church has been a source of stress for you, and with all the stresses of the pandemic piling up, you’ve really appreciated not having had to deal with what Sundays had too-often normally brought you. Maybe you actually feel that home church has enabled you and your family to grow closer.

I would be unnecessarily cruel to label all of the above as individualistic or even selfish denials of the covenant to take one’s place within and build up the body of Christ which every Mormon took upon themselves at baptism…but it would not, for all that, be entirely wrong to do so. Obviously there is a self-centeredness involved in everything I just listed in the foregoing paragraph. Self-care isn’t an evil; recognizing the needs of oneself or one’s loved ones or one’s family, and attending to them, is a definite good. But of course we are all, fallen and sinful beings that we are, poor judges of what is actually good for us, versus what we want to be good for us. So every one our excuses, including the ones which my family invoked (consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly) yesterday, have to carry an asterisk alongside them.

Are all the changes in the ordinary practices of the church over the past couple of years at all a qualifier here, an asterisk that can be placed beside the asterisk, as it were? We have been told, endlessly, that our practice of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be “family-centered, church-supported.” Does the “church” in “church-supported” necessarily meeting church attendance? Or, for that matter, church attendance at the unit one has been geographically assigned? Thanks to institutional tradition and inertia, the presumed meaning of that now no-longer-new formulation was probably unquestioned by most–but strictly speaking, simply as a matter of rhetoric, what it implies is not entirely clear. And as months of online church and home-based meetings have gone by, the willingness to take the rhetorical implications of a truly “family-centered, church-supported” approach to gospel living seriously has, perhaps, increased. I know it has for my family, at least.

Again, the potentially self-interested character of all this can’t be escaped. Because for us, the ward whose sacrament meeting we did not attend yesterday wasn’t in our ward–or rather, wasn’t in the ward we knew. That ward–the Rolling Hills ward of the Wichita Kansas stake, the congregation my family and I had attended ever since we’d moved here 14 years ago–actually ceased to exist on June 28, 2020, when during a special meeting (which I did attend, solely for sake of raising my hand and being counted), the long-term demographic stagnation of the local Mormon population was finally acknowledged when our stake got permission to take the rare action of shrinking the number of units, leaving the wards membership divided between two already existing wards.

The Rolling Hills ward that was bureaucratically extinguished was Rolling Hills Mark Two, actually. The first Rolling Hills was over 20 years old, created as part of an earlier expansion which split up an existing ward and remained it (so the legend goes) after two different golf courses on the west side of Wichita. Mark Two, by contrast, came into existence on August 12, 2012, when the stake redrew boundary lines in order to create a whole new ward, thus qualifying (or so explained all the mostly-but-never-officially-confirmed gossip which we starting hearing from the very moment the new ward was created) for a new stake center. Which we got! But the redrawn Rolling Hills that came out of that later expansion could only qualify as a ward in terms of the number of active priesthood holders in its boundaries by looking at the ward lists with an extremely squinted eye and a very hopeful heart. In practice, the ward often felt like a missionary branch at best, serving as it did the mostly older and poorer (and, inevitably, ever fewer) members that lived in the old inner-ring suburbs of central and southwest Wichita, with the wealthy suburbs–and the outlying public school districts which advancement-conscious young Mormon families who happened to move to the Wichita area were naturally attracted to–safely out of their boundaries. That was the ward where I served in the bishopric for 4 1/2 years, where our four daughters completed Primary and Young Women and became young adults themselves, and where my wife was seemingly condemned to only piano- and organ-playing callings until the end of time.

Now, a small chunk of our always somewhat-pathetic-but-nonetheless-much-missed Rolling Hills Mark 2 ward–the only chunk with families whose children attend the same Wichita city schools as our kids, as it happens–is being sent into a neighboring, newly revitalized, suburbs-including unit; as for us, we’re now in the furthest possible northwest corner of the Auburn Hills ward, now the sole survivor of the original, twenty-year-old, golf-course-inspired restructuring. We know multiple families in this new(ish) ward, to be sure, and when (if?) seminary actually begins, our two remaining daughters at home, along with some of their old friends, will see each other during their socially distanced early morning meetings. But for the moment, our knowledge of this new(ish) ward is almost entirely a matter of e-mails and stake announcements. It’s available for us to attend, to contribute to, to make part of the way we seek to live Christian lives (or, at least, as much as any of those things are possible when church meetings consist of 45 minutes in the chapel to listen to recorded music, receive the sacrament, hear a talk from a member of the bishopric, and then sterilize the pews for the next ward). Or, of course, we could decide–for reasons of our own or others’ health, but perhaps also for reasons of what “supports” our family best–to continue with home church.

I want to take my family to church; I want us to sit in a congregation and be part of the Mormon community in a way that, I think at least, virtually we never could be. But there is still the pandemic. And there is the value of a home church that avoids conflicts both real and anticipated. Avoids blessings too, for certain. But for the moment, for us, here in our place, with our mostly-newly assigned ward, the best way to support the centering of the gospel in our family is unclear.

 

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    We went through a ward contraction maybe 20 years ago. It came too late for my kids, who didn’t really have church friends, because there just weren’t any in our shrinking unit.

    Our Ward is meeting, but I’m still home. We can’t exceed 99 without adding another service, which would add a significant risk. I still do three hours of church as it is (Bishopric, Ward Council, Ardis’s SS classs), so that’ is only a 1-1/2 hour haircut off my physical church routine, so I feel like I’m still plenty engaged. I was going to go back to physical church, but SL nixed our mask mandate for encouragement only, and that wasn’t good enough for me.

  2. We finally (finally) received a mask mandate from our stake president last week. Three large wards in our building, so we only meet every few weeks. I had the distinct feeling the mask mandate wouldn’t be honored. The wife still wanted to go, so she left me and the kids at home. Reported back that many still weren’t wearing masks, including the EQP and his family. With the singing and the lack of mask enforcement, I’ll continue to stay home.

  3. We’ve been in our Montana home 15 years and are “attending” our fifth ward. Most of those we sat with at church at the beginning are no longer even in the same stake. While the growth is encouraging, it’s hard to keep connected, particularly since our neighborhood is one of those left over bits that gets tacked on to even things out when the boundaries are adjusted. Health has prevented my wife from attending church for four years so this Covid thing has little affect on her attendance. BYU TV every Sunday. The danger I see from the virus is it’s affect on individual interactions. It’s not that she got anything from the ward, I believe a RS president has talked with her twice in the four years, but now people can feel justified, even righteous, when ignoring members like her. The hard stuff was always been hard, the virus makes it seem impossible.

  4. My ward needs to be dissolved. I could write paragraphs and paragraphs but the summary is that 70% of the ward is over 60, 1/3 of the ward doesn’t drive and/or needs significant help with normal life function (paying bills, grocery shopping). No one wants to serve in YW— I was de facto YW president and ward camp leader last summer for 3 months while also being RS president because no one would accept the calling. The stake eventually called 2 couples from another ward to serve as youth leaders after I called after 3 months to complain that there were no youth leaders and the bishop hadn’t found anyone willing to do the calling. Those couples have reached out 100 times to families in our boundaries, even surprising them at home, weekly texts, monthly letters and go home calls, but no families have come. There has been no ministering going on— not even between active members— and no one will respond to questions or sign ups for ministering interviews. My ward is 1.5 hours wide by 1 hour top to bottom, and has an active membership of ~50 with 400+ on the rolls. Multiple members of my ward don’t have Internet (out of personal preference since it’s widely available even in rural areas where I live). My bishop doesn’t have internet or a smartphone out of personal preference. There is an incredibly strong unwillingness to change. When asked to change the answer has always been, “but this is the way we’ve always done it”. There is one YW (my daughter) and a few primary kids (more than 50% mine) but the PP and her counselor sit in the primary room doing crafts during sacrament and refuse to come in. One time the PP even brought her sewing machine for something to do during sacrament. Sisters call me to complain no one has reached out to them and yet they won’t reach out to the ONE sister (active sister!) on their ministering list. I’ve been RSP for 3 years.

    These are not personal opinions. This is the experience I’ve had as a transplant to the area (3.5 years ago). My husband served in the bishopric but every suggestion he gave was shot down by other members of the bishopric. My suggestions and ideas and pleadings have been met with resistance, avoidance, and sometimes outright ignoring.

    We’ve talked with the stake about this multiple times but other than sending two couples as emissaries, no changes.

    My family has loved home church. My kids has begun to hate church over the last 18 months. No one prepared primary lessons at regular church so my 9 yr old and 11 yr old were given coloring sheets every week. My 4 yr old had never been to primary because the PP I came up with the singing time games because I was the primary pianist half the time and the primary chorister (almost an octogenarian) believed kids would learn songs best if they recited the words over and over. The Stake PP tried to train her multiple times and she just wanted the kids to sit and recite words— and no one else would accept the calling. My 11 year old disengaged the moment we got to church and refused to participate at all.

    Since we’ve been home, we’ve been doing Zoom church with my in law family. It’s been GREAT. It’s been AMAZING. The talks are good! The kids participate! There are activities and games and questions that the kids answer! My 11 yr old has started engaging in church again! My 9 yr old pays attention! Sure, it’s only 45 minutes but it’s 45 minutes of relatable talks and questions and activities.

    We don’t want to go back. Our ward will begin again next week and we don’t want to go. For now we can plead concern since most of the older members in the ward believe this is a hoax and haven’t taken any precautions. But truthfully, I don’t ever want to go back to this ward. I’ve asked to be released because I now how to facilitate my kids’ remote learning and I can’t do that AND be RSP. My family needs to be supported and we haven’t been for 3.5 years. We want to attend a ward south of us with many families in the same phase as ours. We want friend who are members of the church. We want our kids to have friends who are members of the church. We haven’t had that in this ward and since the suspension of church services, it’s like we’ve had the veil removed from our eyes and we see how hungry our family is for support and how depleted we feel. I’m not sure what we are going to do but it’s the topic of our prayers and meditations.

  5. Sorry— my phone cut off. I was going to say my 4 yr old has never been to Primary because the PP didn’t want him to come yet so he could stay with another 4 yr old (still in nursery) who had some behavioral issues. I called and cried to the Stake PP several times about the issues in Primary and she talked with the stake leadership too, but so far no change. Honestly, I would move out of the stake as well if we could but that’s not an option right now.

    I grew up in a small ward. We’ve lived in other small wards. We’ve never lived in a ward like this that is so actively dying that it’s hurting our family.

  6. One more thing— in discussions about how to reopen church, more than half the bishopric doesn’t want church members to give rides to other church members because you can’t socially distance. Myself and the EQP have been giving rides through the whole quarantine and summer but as I found out today, half of the bishopric hasn’t had any personal contact with anyone since March except once— to help a longtime ward member move back into the ward. The fact that these are the people’s supposed to be leading the ward through teaching and example and yet they themselves haven’t made an effort to make contact with people— I can’t do it anymore.

  7. Michelle, this sounds so painful. I’m grateful home church has been so positive for your family. I think bad traditions can exist in wards, as well as families and other groups. I hope you can find a good solution since you have obviously tried hard to contribute. God bless you.

  8. nobody, really says:

    Michelle, I’d think you were in my ward, but we’ve been back to church for over a month, and the EQP wouldn’t give anyone a ride to the fire department if their butt was burning.

    Our solution to the youth problem was to run the youth off. Only one teenager has attended in the past two years, and she’s currently afraid to bring her baby around other people.

  9. never forget says:

    Michelle, go to the ward to the south for the sake of your kids. I’ve been in similar wards both as a youth and an adult. I avoid them at all costs with my own kids; I’ve done it twice. My job makes me move every two years which has been great for my family, but church hopping is a roll of the dice.
    Best of luck Michelle.

  10. Wait, you’re upset with your bishopric for not engaging in a high-risk activity during a pandemic that would put themselves and their families at risk? That _is_ leading by example, and if you’re upset by it, you need to restore contact with reality. This disease kills people. It’s not a joke or a hoax.

  11. C. Keen— I get the pandemic. My husband is a nurse in our local hospital emergency department. Don’t think I’m downplaying the consequences or risks of the pandemic. Butco side this— 30% of the members in my area can’t drive. They’re elderly, physically or developmentally disabled or both, and all of the people I’m thinking of don’t have family that cares for them. Our senior center, which usually gives rides to some of them, is completely closed right now. One sister has been waiting since Mar 3 for a home health nurse and there just aren’t enough to go around. All of these women live on less than $1k a month, so hiring a taxi or grocery service would put them over the edge financially and many of them can’t climb on or off the public transit. I’m in frequent contact with many social services for them but many of them aren’t operating at a normal level right now. The women should all be in assisted living, yes, but they don’t want to and they’re competent enough to make that decision. What am I supposed to do? Let them starve in their homes because no one wants to give them a ride or help them bring their groceries in? As a Christian, I can’t do that. I’m mad because these members of the bishopric haven’t made ANY contact, personal or phone, with them. They have let myself, and the EQP do all the heavy lifting and then they complain that no one has ministered to them! I’m calling BS on that. It’s NOT okay to let me visit or help these sisters week after week because they’re too scared or lazy to help. I’ve got 5 kids, a husband who works nights, and I’m RSP in a dysfunctional ward. No one helps these women except me and the EQP and his wife. So yes, I have every right to be angry.

  12. east of the mississippi says:

    “Maybe church has been a source of stress for you, and with all the stresses of the pandemic piling up, you’ve really appreciated not having had to deal with what Sundays had too-often normally brought you. Maybe you actually feel that home church has enabled you and your family to grow closer”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself… it’s been years since I’ve felt as well rested and non stressed as I have the past 5 months.

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  14. Forgive me if this analogy doesn’t work for all, but this is how I see it:

    I live 20 miles from Disneyland. I LOVE Disneyland! We have passes and go a lot. We love the atmosphere. A typical Disney day involves 2-3 rides, trying some new food item, some serendipitous character encounter, then heading home after roughly 3 hours. There is so much speculation about what Disneyland will look like when it reopens. Staying away from other guests and the amazing cast members. No character exchanges, parades, or shows. An underlying feeling that you are exposing yourself to a deadly virus. So no thanks. We will resume visits when Disneyland is back to normal.

    So church. No talking to others. No singing. Families spaced out in the pews. Worrying about the quantity and quality of the hands touching the sacrament. No primary or youth programs. Two talks that will not interest my young children. An underlying feeling that you are exposing yourself to a deadly virus. Then you leave. So no thanks. We will resume visits when church is back to normal.

    I should mention, I’m more than happy in the meantime to attend Zoom church, or serve as needed, and try to stay connected to my church community. But attending physical church? What’s the point?

  15. I sometimes worry that if we take the “family-centered, church-supported” mantra too seriously, we could end up with no church at all to support the family. At some point–and to mangle Kipling– the wolf needs to support the pack if it wants a pack around to support the wolf. I don’t know what that means in all circumstances, but for most of us I think it still means going to church and serving in callings, even if “home church” would be easier or better.

    But I’m also with the OP: I’m not going back until I’m convinced it’s relatively safe, and I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that yet. Where I live, for example, the rate of covid incidence is much higher than when we quit going in March.

  16. mattchrispete says:

    Wow, I was surprised to see the Westlink building posted here, my world just got a little smaller. I grew up in the old 1st ward, so your recounting of the ebbs and flows of the boundaries brought some memories back.

    I love home church, and need home church. I need at-church church, even if it has been a stress in my life as long as I can remember. Not that I didn’t/don’t have meaningful or good experiences. I had/have them in spite of my baseline worries, distractions, pretentions, preoccupations and unproductive unnessisary guilt. I had to learn that when it’s too much for me, step back and take a breath. I think home church has helped me see some things about what joy I get from my faith minus all the noise, and also that I really do need my ward in ways I didn’t understand before.

  17. Thanks for that comment, MattChrisPete! We moved to Wichita in 2006, and the ward which had been broken up to form Auburn Hills and Rollings as, I believe, the 5th ward, so obviously we’re talking about different eras. Still, I appreciate you hopeful note, the recommendation to “step back and take a breath,” and then perhaps being able to see how we need our wards after all, whatever their boundaries. That may yet be our case, I hope.

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