Fathers, Friendship, and Holding onto Your Platoon (or Not)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This old Cal Grondahl cartoon, from many years ago, has been on my mind for while:

It first came back to my mind as I was preparing for a sacrament meeting sermon on Father’s Day, the first time I’d been at a church pulpit since before the pandemic. As I’ve explained before, the ward that my family and I had attended for years officially disappeared just over a year ago–and its elimination by the stake, with consequent changes in boundaries which ended up dividing us from just about everyone we were close to in our former ward, has combined with the lock-downs and upheavals throughout 2020, both personal and political, to make it hard for us to get back into the church-attending habit. The cartoon thus really struck me, because it was, predictably the husband holding back his hysterical wife, patiently emphasizing the facts of the situation: “there’s nothing you can do.” 

That’s the stereotype, right? When there is a difficult reality to face, when there are hard choices to make, when sacrifices must be accepted and leadership is required, who is supposed to provide it, in the church’s official imagination? The husband, of course–the father, the patriarch. It’s a stereotype that finds support in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” after all: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” 

Sure, the Proclamation allows that “individual adaptation” may sometimes be necessary, and it’s not hard to find statements from general authorities of the church implying how there may be all sorts of undefined exceptions to general principles like these out there as well, and that’s even assuming you take the Proclamation seriously as a matter of doctrine (which I don’t). But still, it’s hard to be a member of such a culturally uniform body of believers as American Mormonism and not feel, as I do, at least slightly condemned for being, as I am, a weak father, someone reluctant to insist, in some commanding way, that my family has to attend a congregation that they mostly do not know, and a church that some of them–and, to a degree, I as well–have come to see over the past year and a half as, institutionally at least, partly irrelevant, morally as well as politically, to their lives.

Maybe that weakness isn’t such a bad thing; maybe American Mormon fathers can flip the cultural script, sometimes, and not necessarily play the stoic, authoritative, “there’s nothing you can do”-types. (And considering the fact that our church’s demographics skew heavily female as soon as you age out of childhood, that’s probably an unavoidable flip, even if the cultural presumptions haven’t caught up, and perhaps, given our all-male leadership, perhaps never will.) Still, as our family’s participation in Mormonism, after decades of constancy, becomes doubtful and worried and inconsistent in the midst of the changes and covid-19 variants still out there, I can’t help but feel somewhat at fault.

Lately though, as my family has continued to struggle along, I’ve stopped thinking about the husband in the cartoon, and started thinking about the wife, and her plea to hold on to her friends.

When Joseph Smith spoke of friendship as “one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism” he was speaking cosmologically; he may have given examples that were both personal and social, but his aim in introducing the idea, at least as I interpret the passage, is to emphasize how the friendship among members of the Mormon community will revolutionize the world, bringing us closer to the Millennial peace promised by the scriptures. Holding onto the Hendersons, as the cartoon satirizes, probably has no such theological weight. But…so what? Isn’t it possible that insisting upon church activity in a particular place at a particular time, and thus upon supporting the leadership and the structures and the expectations culturally coded into the institutions of American Mormonism, all by way of a theological claim (the father in the cartoon might as well have said “Sharon, those with inspired priesthood authority have spoken; you can’t challenge that”), is itself a stereotypically…”male” thing to do? Appealing to the cosmological principle of friendship, rather than real-world associations with one’s actual neighbors and friends?

Of course, you will all say: dividing a ward hardly means you still can’t spend time with the Hendersons! And that’s correct. But we also all know that as fallen, embodied creatures, as creatures subject to human time and space, and subject to so many faults and limitations, we depend upon social structures to enable to us find and build upon the associations which bring virtue and purpose and joy into our lives. A Mormon congregation is, to twist slightly the famous Edmund Burke quote, “the subdivision…the little platoon we belong to in society.” (Burke was talking at least as much about people embracing their place in the class hierarchy as he was about them loving their locality, but the general conservative principle holds.)

We come into a subdivision, and we build, over time, memories, patterns of relationships, referents to people and events and experiences upon which we tell stories to ourselves about service, sacrifice, and simple pleasures. Can we do that anywhere, with any group of people, at any point of time? In theory, yes. But in practice, that kind of insistence (just start over again somewhere else!) valorizes exactly the kind of supposedly seamless, transactional modernity which, on a certain philosophical level at least, Mormonism ought to resist. In actual embodied life, becoming attached to a congregation takes time and costs effort–and as so many of us have experienced, the ward platoon we find ourselves may resist our best efforts at association (or, perversely, may bring out the associational worst in us). Thus to lose a subdivision that, over the years, came to mean seeing and catching up with and being comforted by the presence of genuine friends at Sunday meetings may well justify Sharon’s desperate response.

Some will argue, not unreasonably, that the Mormon church is officially moving away from this kind of reliance upon congregational “platoons” anyway–that (perhaps inspired to prepare for the ward-and-activity-shuttering pandemic we have all experienced, and continue to experience) Mormonism is to become a “home-centered, church-supported” entity, and not just in the operations of Sunday School. To which I respond: well, maybe. If such decentralized hyper-localism–indeed, familialism–is to be the future of the faith, with our families (however we define them? or would only a clearly defined set of family associations count, perhaps those with the right sort of “Sharon, there’s nothing you can do” patriarchs at their head?) serving as our “platoons,” then some things needs to be seriously rethought, callings and boundaries and membership lists being just the start. In the meantime, though, we baptized members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we covenanted members of this particular interpretation of the body of Christ, are called to attend and support and receive the ordinances of salvation in our several subdivided places. And the difficulty of returning to such, for families like my own at least, remains.

Comments

  1. richellejolene says:

    Thanks for this, Russell. I have been thinking a lot about a similar issue lately, namely the idea I heard cited a lot as a youth/in YSA wards that your reasons for coming to be church should be spiritual rather than social. But in the end, it’s absurd to think those two things are separate (ever, but especially in Mormonism).

    We went to three different wards and branches when I was growing up, even though we never moved houses. For several years, we were on “assignment” from the stake to attend a struggling branch outside our boundaries. It was so, so difficult for both the kids and adults in my family to leave our friends and everything we’d known for a congregation that was so small it couldn’t really sustain a social life. For a while, my mom was YW president and the only consistent weeknight activity attendees were family members. Turns out that’s not most people’s favorite way of doing church, no matter how much HQ wants to push “home-centered.”

  2. You really have an interesting insight into the idea of what to make of our relationship to an institution that we find irrelevant to our morality. The pandemic has extended that dynamic even further.

    If it wasnt for my testimony of the living reality of Jesus Christ, I’d feel withdrawn from “the institution” for any particular reason that made it seem irrelevant to my principles.

    But the reality is, Christ did not call for revolution of local, federal, or religious government in his lifetime. He called for individual revolution of ourselves, in a sense. The church has the ordinances and principles that teach me how to do that and keep all manner of personal zealous ideas about society and government or church in check.

    Following Christ will never mean rejecting his church. Occasionally, it might even involve a few cups which seem bitter, but are nothing approaching the sort when his own cup is considered.

  3. Holly Miller says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I’ll never see that cartoon quite the same way again.

  4. I feel the same.

  5. John Charity Spring says:

    Far too many young people see the Church as a mechanism for entertainment and personal fulfillment, rather than a place to serve and be part of a thing greater than oneself. This is why the are so opposed to boundary changes.

    Essentially, these young people bail when belonging to a ward takes effort. They want to be entertained with their friends, rather than put forth effort. That is why so many are continuing to sit home in the sweatpants and crocs even though it is safe to go back to Sunday meetings.

    We were never meant to just go to Church with people we are already friends with. If so, we would have a plumbers ward, a nurses ward, and a lawyers ward. We would never have to get to know and get a long with those who are different than us.

  6. Old Man says:

    You had me with the cartoon. Great thoughts.

  7. Sute,

    He called for individual revolution of ourselves, in a sense. The church has the ordinances and principles that teach me how to do that and keep all manner of personal zealous ideas about society and government or church in check.

    That is certainly a valuable–and perhaps entirely true–Protestant reading of the God’s revelation through Jesus Christ: He came to individually save us, and establish a church to help us individually be saved. However, keep in mind that there are other, more corporate interpretations of God’s purposes, some that would even suggest that church body which institutionalized in such a way as to be relatively disengaged in matters social or governmental would be a church body that is serving, not just its individual members poorly, but also not doing God’s work in the world either.

  8. J.C. Spring,

    We were never meant to just go to Church with people we are already friends with. If so, we would have a plumbers ward, a nurses ward, and a lawyers ward. We would never have to get to know and get a long with those who are different than us.

    I don’t deny your general point; learning to “know and get along with those who are different than us” is what is valuable with having genuine wards, like Catholic parishes, rather than self-chosen Protestant congregations. However, two questions in response: 1) If you’re correct that “we were never meant to just go to church with people we are already friends with,” then why on earth are people allowed to continue as members of a ward for decades? Why aren’t their records sent elsewhere, so they aren’t just, year in and year out, attending with the same friends (and enemies) they’ve already made, which presumably would be restricting their spiritual growth? 2) You are, of course, already aware of how thanks to the shift in property values between neighborhoods, urban areas already do have, in essence, “plumbers wards,” “lawyers wards,” etc., yes? I mean, who could not be aware of such an obvious truth? When our stake decided the only way to qualify for a stake center was to increase the number of wards, the one they invented (the same one they made disappear eight years later), was obviously going to be characterized by an older, poorer, less educated, more conservative, urban population; everyone knew that from the moment the boundaries were revealed, and nothing that ever happened while I was in the bishopric or afterwards made any difference. (The fact that young and growing families, both in size and income, would routinely move out of our ward and into the suburbs is proof of that.) So, again, while I concede your general point, it’s not like we don’t get distinctions between wards already, and thus I am discontented to see a ward where the difficult work of making friends and becoming part of a place can be so causally taken away, and I am sympathetic to people like the hysterical mother in the cartoon who feels the same way.

  9. nobody, really says:

    I’ve got ancestors that settled in northern Utah after fleeing Nauvoo. I’ve got another ancestor who was working for the US Marshal’s office in Ogden, locking up practitioners of “The Principle”. There was a widespread effort in those days reminding members to “Mind Your Business” – anyone not in your ward could be a spy, ready to report you to the Feds simply for *believing* in plural marriage, not just practicing it. Even block-teaching a supposed widow could have you hauled in for questioning.

    The message was to keep private business private. Anyone could turn you in. Men with multiple families had to sneak around in disguise, by dead of night, to take care of their progeny. These attitudes have carried over into modern church practice – you might see BYU shirts on teens, CTR/Emblems of Belonging on the children, and knee-length shorts on the parents, but do not approach them. Do not engage. Mind your business and keep matters to yourself.

    When a ward gets divided or dissolved, the heavy time requirements of callings and responsibilities force us to cut ties. As a local Relief Society presidency member told us, “If you’re spending enough time on your callings and your family, you shouldn’t have *any* time for friends.” Her attitude, while blunt, is one with which a great many Mormons would agree. We’re taught “magnify your callings”, not “keep in touch”.

  10. I share your sympathies, RAF. Our ward got split up during the pandemic, and this father has been pondering a lot of the same questions as you. (It was callous and inconsiderate to break up wards in our stake during the pandemic, if you ask me. But, the outgoing stake presidency apparently wanted to finish their pet administrative project of redoing the boundaries before they were released. Eye roll.)

    Thank you for highlighting what so few acknowledge in the church: “we depend upon social structures to enable to us find and build upon the associations which bring virtue and purpose and joy into our lives.”

  11. Warner Woodworth says:

    Thanks for your insights on this issue, Russell. It’s always a tough decision when boundaries change. I’m glad a number of my friends received permission, if not strong support, to retain their memberships where they or their kids wanted or needed to be. Having lived in lots of wards, and having served as a counselor to six bishops, presided over a married student ward, and been on some high councils, I know well the decision-making process. It’s never easy and I’ve always appreciated the deliberation that goes into such action. While I know a few who dropped away after such changes, most survived and for many, new social and religious circles became positive things. My experience is that when boundaries are altered, I can work harder to continue friendly ties that are put in a different ecclesiastical corral. However, sometimes, it requires jumping over the fence.

  12. bmcarson says:

    For those of us who do not make the move from one ward to another with a family, these kinds of changes can separate us from those who fill that role in our day to day. I tried to write out all the ways this has played out in my life but it was getting to be a full essay so suffice it to say that when it happened to me at the beginning of last year it changed my relationship with the church. I realized that I would never be able to count on the church taking my needs into consideration with these decisions. I also decided that as others can (and should) turn down some church activities and service in order to care for their family relationships I would do the same. It’s just that in my case from the outside it will look like I’m just ‘socializing’ with my friends. I’m old enough to care less about what people think of me but I know for certain that there are those who will think I’m being selfish because they cannot see that these networks of friendships already are something larger than myself and sometimes serving looks like going to brunch instead of a service project. In the past I have sacrificed my friend relationships in order to throw myself into integrating with a new ward. It’s not worth it.

  13. Jack Hughes says:

    For those of you who hold to the position that church attendance is primarily or exclusively for individual spiritual nourishment/development, rejecting the value of social/community functions, I kindly disagree. As much as it pains my introvert soul to say it, the value of church is in the people we worship with, not just spending time with ourselves and God and no one else. If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s that private worship, devotion, scripture study and in many cases the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are all things people can do at home. But there is value in the human-to-human connections we make at church, whether in forging deep lifelong friendships, meeting interesting people we otherwise would not, or learning to tolerate people who we hold in contempt. I never thought I would miss it as much as I do.

    About 5 years ago, my ward was dissolved during a major multi-stake realignment. Families were reassigned into multiple newly-formed wards, some of which ended up in different adjacent stakes. Our best friendships were split up. We met in a different chapel which was further away from us than the old one. The new ward crossed into different school districts, so my kids’ peers were strangers. Though not the sole factor, it probably played a part in influencing my decision to take a new job in another state and move away the following year. A lot of people (including me, my wife and kids) were angry with the result, mostly because it was done with zero input from the people that would be affected by it the most. They just dropped the announcement on us one day, and told us it would go into effect the following month, and that was that.

    By contrast, my kids’ current school district recently embarked on a plan to realign the attendance boundaries. Our area has seen rapid growth, and in recent years they built a new elementary school and expanded the existing ones to accommodate the influx. As part of the process, there have been multiple demographic studies, public meetings, comment periods, surveys, virtual listening sessions and other outlets for public input and transparency. The entire process will take more than a year before a final decision is rendered. Any kid directly affected by the change will be grandfathered to allow them to continue attending the school they are already in until graduation. Even if we don’t end up liking the results, at least we can say we had an opportunity to provide our input, and we can still keep our kids at the same school no matter what. Why can’t we do it this way in the Church? Our friendships and personal connections matter!

  14. Matthew says:

    Echoing the comments above, and especially Jack Hughes’, the way the Church handles a lot of decisions at the local level seems designed to step on toes. Another example of this is in how members are called out of nowhere into the bishop’s office with no explanation. The member is just left to guess what the reason could be from the time they receive the text/email/phone call to the time they sit down to hear what it’s all about. Or how callings are given out without so much as giving anyone time to think it over for just a day and decide whether that’s something that’s actually going to work for them. You’re largely expected to give an answer right then and there. Anyway, a little bit off topic but I felt it was along the same lines.

  15. +1 to Matthew’s comment. At the start of 2020, a half dozen or so houses were moved into my ward. (It’s Utah, so of course ward boundaries are literally defined at the level of individual houses.) From a purely geographical sense, the change is perfectly reasonable, and it’s a little weird that they didn’t draw them that way to begin with. But from a human perspective, the move made little sense. Even as an odd little bump on the ward boundaries, they were still less than half a mile from every single other home in their old ward, and they had years (though not decades) of time spent in that ward. It’s not as if my ward needed a shot in the arm from a two dozen more members, we’re already the largest ward in the stake! On the last Sunday of 2019, their old bishop announced the boundary change in sacrament meeting, which I think felt to them like they were being publicly kicked out the ward and sent to a new ward, and the only possible reason was so that the stake presidency could feel satisfied that the ward map looked less bumpy now. And then, of course, 10 weeks in to their assimilation into their new ward, church shut down leaving them with no relationships in the ward to help sustain them. Obviously the stake presidency didn’t know how 2020 was going to turn out, but their timing just couldn’t have been worse.

  16. Thanks for the continuing comments folks. For at least a couple of commenters (Nobody, Really and B.M. Carson), it’s clear that ward boundary changes–which, of course, often functionally includes ward elimination–connect to some pretty heavy historical and personal experiences. I appreciate you sharing your perspectives. A few additional thoughts below:

    Is it “callous and indifferent” to change ward boundaries–or, in our case, eliminate a whole ward–during the pandemic lock-downs, Hunter? I don’t know if I’d say the former (in our particular case, the ward which the stake invented back in 2012 was never going to be a truly functional one, at least in the sense of what is usually expected from American wards today, and so I can see the argument to putting it out of its misery when everyone was at home watching church on Zoom anyway), but I’d definitely agree with the latter. While I wouldn’t for a second hope for a stake in the LDS Church’s hierarchical organization to engage in “multiple demographic studies, public meetings, comment periods, surveys, virtual listening sessions and other outlets for public input” which Jack Hughes idealistically suggests, I would at least hope it would be the sort of thing that bishops and branch presidents and high council members would let us know was being talked about long before it happened, thus allowing all sorts of consoling or suggestive conversations to emerge organically among the membership, allowing us to deal with what was coming. When stuff just gets dropped on you, it can only make one’s natural anxiety and frustrations greater. Combine that all the political and personal upheavals of the pandemic, and well…

    While I’m sure there are many–like Warner Woodworth above, who affirms the great care and deliberation that goes into establishing (or eliminating) wards–who would probably find Tom’s claim that “the only possible reason [for the boundary change] was so that the stake presidency could feel satisfied that the ward map looked less bumpy now” a little extreme, I’m not one of them. I love a great many people here in the Wichita Kansas Stake, and that includes many people in ward and stake leadership positions, but my love for them doesn’t persuade me that some decisions, however deliberate, aren’t rooted in rather ordinary politics, economics, and demographics. Relevant to Tom’s example, after our recently departed ward was drawn by the stake nine years ago, it quickly became obvious that even the most dreamy projections of re-activation weren’t going to be enough to keep our ward operational (not so long as women don’t have the priesthood, anyway), and so as a shot of life-support, the stake did a quick redraw of the boundaries, basically giving our ward all of two more whole blocks of west Wichita suburban housing. But there were three active families with fathers capable of holding callings there, so that’s a win! For a while anyway; they all eventually moved or went inactive, of course. Point being: boundaries are human creations, just like most of the institutions of the church. Not much reason, I think, to look at these weird lines on the map and assume God had a constant hand in drawing them.

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