A Tale of Two Wards: What Is Zion?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . . Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities

In 2009 the full-time missionaries were pulled from our large ward and sent to a small ward, recently split, in a neighboring stake. This “other ward” has four sets of missionaries.  Our ward could be described as a typical transplanted Utah/Arizona/Idaho ward with a few true southerners. Pious yet worldly, are the  words to describe most of us. The news we no longer had full-time missionaries, was not well received by the members of our ward. After all, our  ward is upwardly mobile middle class, and we are accustomed to achieving success.  In all aspects of mormondom, we consider ourselves to be  well above average.  Our proselytizing failures are a blight on our wealth= righteousness checklist.  In contrast, the ward our missionaries were re-assigned to, can best be described as predominantly native Tennessee country folks plus single/married university students; with a few professionals such as a country doctor,  a small town lawyer, and a handful of college professors. This other ward is definitely not suburban upwardly mobile middle class. Humble and genuine would be the words to describe this other ward.

Our ward is extremely  well organized. Leadership boasts of nearly 100% home and visiting teaching every month. Every eight weeks or so, an entire sacrament meeting is devoted to the topic missionary work. The Deacons line up during the sacrament in the expected uniform of nice slacks or suits, and wearing white shirts accessorized with plain or subtle ties. Aaronic Priesthood hair is cut missionary style.  The Melchizedek Priesthood brethren are mostly attired in suits with white shirts and boring ties. Despite our perfection in the area of mormon fashion we are still edgy and cool, as evidenced by  a few of  the men who have facial hair; in fact our Bishop  sports a nifty mustache.  The women are perfectly coifed and dressed in the latest fashion. Most of  the sisters dress modestly and we never wear slacks to church on Sunday.  We have a thriving primary and youth program. Because we are near to Nashville, our Sacrament solos/choir/general assembly’s hymn singing would rival the angelic hosts of heaven. We consider ourselves to be friendly and we officially welcome visitors to our meetings.  We have members who are of color. Our stake has a Spanish Ward. Despite our obvious perfections; we rarely ever have a convert baptism, and when we do, unless the convert is a spouse of a member, they usually do not stay active (even some of the convert spouses have trouble with full activity), except for some decidedly mentally unbalanced individuals. So it stands to reason, why questions of how could it be possible this other ward’s missionary efforts could be better than ours?

Our family has a connection to the “other” ward. My oldest son Tex attends the university situated in the other ward’s boundaries. We attended his ward last week to hear him give a talk in Sacrament meeting. After settling my children in their classes, I quickly found my seat in Relief Society. A sister missionary greeted me with a big smile. I detected slight disappointment that I was not an investigator. These lucky missionaries were accustomed to  new investigators coming nearly every week.

For the women in Relief Society, Sunday dress could be described as casual. Some of the women came dressed in slacks. Six clip boards were passed instead of one. A friendship basket loaded with cinnamon gum, was given to a sister. The reason for the gum was this sister was struggling to overcome her addiction to nicotine. When she announced she had been without a cigarette for several weeks; heartfelt applause filled the room. Next, I attended Sunday School.  I smelled cigarette smoke on the folks sitting next to me.  The Gospel Doctrine lesson stayed on topic, but  Tex reported his young single adult class talked about reincarnation.

I felt welcomed by the members, even if I was not formally introduced in either meeting. Several ward members sought me out and genuinely  welcomed us. Most did not know my son, but this is not a negative for me, as we are genetically the Sephardic Diaspora. Our ancestors have spent centuries perfecting the art of blending in with our surroundings. Flash and Hong Mei enjoyed the small primary. Jie Jie and Piano Man enjoyed their  small youth classes. Sacrament meeting was held last and I was eager to get a glimpse of the bishop.  The Bishop’s missionary success has elevated him to the status of rock-god in the Bishop world. I was disappointed to note, he did not conduct, was not glowing with charisma wafting back thru the chapel; but instead  was a regular bald guy in his early fifties. Perhaps, dear Reader,  you thought I was expecting Pierce Brosnan?? Well, yeah??!!

During the Sacrament, I noticed the  few Aaronic Priesthood holders  dressed in the traditional slacks, white shirts, and ties. However, one young man was dressed in jeans and a sweater. I noticed several young men had hair longer than Piano Man’s hair, which is considered to be a scandal in our ward. The musical ability of the members was average.  The talks were just plain old nice; of course, Tex’s discourse was spectacular, but then again, I am his mama. 🙂 The topic was Family Gospel Study, except for Tex who was accidentally given the topic of following God’s commandments.

Since returning from his mission, and attending his university family ward, Tex has taught the first discussion many times on his own, to very diverse audiences. He has also passed out three Books of Mormon, and participated several times in teaching the second discussion with the ward missionaries. People, Tex has taught, are attending his ward.  He was not this successful on his mission!!  I do not believe these occurrences are because of some random  coincidences, or Tex’s amazing missionary skills; rather God is placing these opportunities in his path. Why him? Why not us?

At this time, Tex has not been asked to do a calling or home-teaching assignment, and he has not  been assigned a home-teacher. He reports that home-teaching stats are never mentioned in Priesthood. As far as missionary work, it is never mentioned except as “isn’t it nice the Holy Spirit has led these wonderful people to us to be our dear friends”.  Tex tells me the investigators are not flash in the pan, but are nurtured and genuinely befriended by the ward members. To his knowledge, none of the investigators or members are seriously unbalanced.

So this brings is to the how and why of this discussion. I believe God is leading His children to find and be nourished in the Gospel in this little country ward in the Appalachian Mountains; whereas our ward, situated in the prosperity  of the suburbs is (without move-ins and births) dying on the vine. So dear reader, why is this so? Please do tell, inquiring minds want to know.

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About JA Benson

Joanna entered the world as a BYU baby. Continuing family tradition, she graduated BYU with a degree in Elementary Education and taught for several years. Growing up in Salt Lake County, her favorite childhood hobbies were visiting cemeteries and eavesdropping on adult conversations. Her ancestral DNA is multi-ethnic and she is Mormon pioneer stock on every familial line. Joanna resides in the Southeastern USA with her five children ranging in age from 8 to 24. Her husband passed away in 2009. She is an avid reader and a student of history. Her current intellectual obsession is Sephardic Jewish history, influence and genealogy. She served as a board member for her local chapter of Families with Children from China. She is the author of “DNA Mormons?” Summer Sunstone 2007 http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2007/04/dna-mormons/ and “Becoming Hong Mei`s Mother” in the Winter Sunstone 2009 http://theredbrickstore.com/sunstone/becoming-hong-meis-mother/.

20 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Wards: What Is Zion?

  1. I wouldn’t say it all comes down to this, but the fact that you describe your ward as “upwardly mobile middle class” and your son’s ward as, well, not, might be the key. My ward is half and half these two socio-economic rungs of the ladder, and I would say less than one third of our converts are from the more affluent areas, while the poorer area of the ward, while smaller geographically, brings in more converts and investigators. I think the people in the less affluent areas are just more open to God in general, while those in the affluent areas don’t feel the need for anything more than a passive belief in God.
    And I wish more wards would take the stance of your son’s ward on their attitude towards missionary work. I hate sacrament meetings that focus on missionary work when there are people who are not of our faith in the audience. It seems like the only reason we want them there is to get them baptized, rather than bring them the good news of the gospel.

  2. The reasons are probably too complex for anybody to understand. The knee-jerk reaction of some people is going to be: you are too “perfect,” not welcoming enough, too rooted in the Utan/Arizona/Idaho culture (meaning too pioneer Mormon). I don’t know if that’s true. I lived in a ward in Miami, FL for several years that had convert baptisms every month for a time. We probably baptized 30 or so new converts in a year one year when I was there. No more than four of those 30 people are still active. The only people, for the most part, who stay active in Miami are the people who grew up in the intra-mountain West culture and move to Miami, OR the small group of people who were converted 20-30 years ago and stayed in Miami.

    People love to come to the Bloggernacle and talk down to “traditional Mormons” like the ones in your ward, implying that if they were only more “real,” they would be more successful. In reality, they are only stereotyping. There are wonderful Saints in your ward where no baptisms take place, and it’s very likely they are wonderful Saints in the other ward. Why are they getting more baptisms? The reasons are probably way too complex for anybody to know for sure.

    I will say this: I worked for the stake for two years in Miami looking at the facts and figures regarding convert baptisms. By far the most successful wards were those that made an active attempt to set up a ward missionary program. They had a core group of 10-15 families that was actively inviting friends to Church, friends of all ages. They would then sit with their friends at church and invite them to their homes, make them feel at home. Wards that didn’t have anything active were much less successful. Note the key was inviting friends they already knew.

    So is it possible the country ward is inviting more friends from the area than your ward? Might be.

  3. Sounds like your son’s ward has a ton of diversity and is very nonjudgmental. (I don’t just mean racial diversity–I mean people with long hair, wearing non-Sunday clothes, etc.) It’s easier for new people to feel at home when people are welcoming and when the new people don’t stick out like a sore thumb.
    And student populations (in my experience) tend to be better for good missionary work.

  4. Ginger- thanks for commenting. I do not know if the socioeconomic status has anything to do with our failures; the sister ward to our ward has two sets of missionaries. I mentioned our demographics as our mindset of being successful and we “suck” at missionary work. I do agree humble areas of the church may be more successful in attracting converts who are young and less set in their ways, or humble in spirit and are willing to undergo a change.

    I so agree about the missionary work talks. Heaven forbid anyone investigating attend a Sac. mtg with missionary work as the theme. It looks so cultish. I believe the line in the movie The Field of DreamsBuild it and they will come“. If we have Sacrament Mtgs. that are Savior centered, He will send seekers to us.

    Geoff- Having lived here for 17 years, i would have to say it may have something to do with our treatment of converts than anything else. We need to reclaim those who were seriously offended. Also the obsession with stats borders on psychotic. Thanks for telling us about your experience.

    Thanks Tim-You are probably right.

  5. My parents live in, and I was reared in the first kind of ward. All I can say is when I go back to visit I get the feeling that the neighborhoods are 1–burned over as far as fellowshipping. When the whole stake is a mile wide and three miles long and highly concentrated with LDS, what do you do? And as much as you fellowship your neighbors if they say NO, you cannot force them.

    2–I live in something similar to the second ward mentioned and when I go back home I feel out of place. Not that I’m shabby or anything, I just feel painfully underdressed and undercoiffed. I know in my parents ward most of the investigators feel very out of place with the white bread pioneer stock you described. I don’t know how to over come that. And then how do you bridge the gap between McMansions and transient apartment complex living? It’s very hard.

    3–I know in my home ward the people that are in that ward have been there forever and are tight. I think it never occures to them that they are being clicky. I feel similarly when I’ve attended some wards on the Wasatch Front as well…like I haven’t kept up with the Joneses enough.

    4–I hear time and time againg the refrain, “We just have to be good example and live the gospel.” Well that’s great, but there are many great Methodists living the gospel as well. What differentiates us from them? Are we being bold enough? Our neighbors might think we’re great, but do they know we are LDS and what we believe?

    5–I sat thru an RS lesson in my home ward on missionary work once. All I heard were excuses of why the sisters were not doing things. I commented and got gaping mouths and shocked looks when I suggested, that these sisters were not making it a priority. If the gospel is as important as they claim, then they should cut out whatever is was that was holding them back, be BOLD, challenge their friends, TELL THEM why the LDS Church is true, why the Gospel is important, how it has changed their lives. Clear their planners, drop out of soccer, basket weaving or whatever and get out and just DO IT!

    6–In my own ward we often talk about getting the community to attend functions and things in our building “to feel the spirit”, and we are very, very good about that. We have a community event at least once a quarter in our ward. I mentioned once in a meeting that feeling the spirit was great, but if we were not challengeing people to act on what they were feeling it didn’t matter if they were drowding in the spirit — blank stares from the leadership in the room ensued. We need to challenge, act, invite people to chage their lives. That is what we are doing, inviting people to make the changes in their lives that will bring them closer to Jesus Christ.

    Anyway, those are just some of my thoughts….getting off my soapbox now and returning to glamourous motherhood duties.

  6. Your ward is (insert godless European country of choice) and Tex lives in (insert 3rd world country of choice). It is merely a circumstance of your neighborhoods; your neighbors likely feel they do not need religion whereas some people in Tex’s area are searchers.

    Also, when I was in a ward like Texs’ the members were SO desperate for new members (a pianist, someone who could take one of my 5 callings, a 7 year old so my son has a friend in Primary please please please) that they really go out of their way to fellowship. When I have been in established wards like yours, it was hard to tell when someone was even visiting, there were just SO many people, several Sunday School classes, etc etc. If I did see that someone new was there, I might have assumed they were visiting relatives or that someone else must surely have welcomed them.

  7. Ok, here is the deal. Everyone is focusing on the socio-economics of the two wards. That might be part of the problem, “but honey that just ain’t it.” As my mother said previously, the neighboring ward to her ward has two sets of missionaries, while hers doesn’t have any missionaries. My ward has four sets of missionaries, and the ward that covers the other side of town only has one set of missionaries. It is not completely location and money, it is the hearts of the people residing in the area. I can’t tell you how much more comfortable I am in my ward than I am in the ward I grew up in.

  8. Your ward sounds like it is thriving in many ways. Let us not forget that members are God’s children too. Members need to be taught the gospel. Members need a support structure. Members need leaders to care about them.
    Sure, I can feel guilty about all the people I’m not sharing the gospel with. But how about the people that I AM sharing the gospel with. What about my children? I daily teach them and care for their spiritual life. What about the ward members who I serve in my calling? I try to give them the blessings of the gospel through my calling. What about my husband? I serve him and help him through his life the way I think God would want. What about my brothers and sisters? What about those I visit teach? I try to support them and bring them the light of the gospel. What about when I substitute in primary and teach those little ones? What about when I help out in YW and try to help those teenagers see a glimpse of the spirit. What about when I approach a young mother and offer love and support or when I sit down next to an old lady in our ward and let her know that I care about her.
    Am a dropping a few balls? Yes, I’m sure I am. But I am sharing the gospel and trying to be like Jesus in so many ways. I hope the Lord is using me the way he sees fit.
    He knows who is in your ward. I think there are probably many, many things that he sees that your ward is doing well. Take a closer look. Behind the perfect hair is probably a visiting teacher that really cares and a primary teacher who makes an effort to teach while keeping kids semi-entertained so they will behave and have church be a positive experience. Along with that missionary haircut is a young father who tries to read scriptures with his children and who shows up at YMs and tries to plan activities and connect with the youth in his care.

  9. JBA (Comment #5), items 4, 5, and 6: Preach it, Sista!

    JAB: It sounds like your ward is ashamed of the Gospel. Geoff’s right. It’s not Idaho/Utah/Arizona/Pioneer culture. Your ward sounds just plain stuck up.

    I’ve had similar thoughts about the ward I’m in. They might as well pull the set of missionaries we have, and put them in a ward that’s more productive. If we do get investigators, full-time missionaries could just be called in from neighboring areas to do the teaching.

  10. Tex and JAB–I think the chances are good that something personal went down between missionaries and leadership or between ward leadership and mission president. I served in a unit on my mission that had not had missionaries in it for more than a year because of previous misconduct on the part of missionaries–the bishop straight up said they were not interested having missionaries. When we were sent back in, they would only accept Sisters.

    If you look at worldwide missionary staffing, I think you will see that they are concentrated in areas where they can be successful. Why would it be different in our local missions?

  11. ESO- I really doubt that the missionaries were acting up so the bishop asked for them to be taken out. It was sisters who were taken out. I later met one who was serving in my ward and I guarantee she wasn’t acting up. I served in two wards on my mission where missionaries were calling to be taken out because of lack of help from the members. The Mission President even said the reason he pulled the missionaries was because of the members.

  12. Joyce- I cannot speak for the other neighborhoods as there are several new ones, but our neighborhood is certainly the “burned over district”. So many missionaries have tracked over the years some of the neighbors have behaved very badly in the last few years.

    JKS- You are right. THere is some great fellowshipping going on in our ward especially amongst the wonderful large influx of move-ins in the last 1-3 years.

    Bookslinger- No, I do not think we are ashamed. The Provident Living Committee has meetings that are attended by nonmembers ( even men). I honestly think it is a kind of cursing. We cannot be trusted with converts and other members. In years past, some ( certainly not all) picked at and shamed members who did not live up to their standards. The situation has gotten better, but we need to re-claim a bunch of people. Those in leadership are not willing to do what is necessary to re-claim these members.

    ESO- We were told we were a great ward, just not getting any baptisms. The sister missionaries were wonderful. I believe the mission sent over their best before they passed judgement. We are friendly. There is an outgoing sister called to welcome visitors to gospel doctrine class. She talks up the new visitors getting the scoop on the where and why they are visiting our ward. RS makes sure they welcome all new faces. Sometimes it gets embarrassing as they welcome some old-timer less active sister. I have noticed members who leave their seats after sacrament mtg. to welcome new faces. I tell you, it has been a serious slap to our collective self-esteem to have this happen to our ward.

    If you look at worldwide missionary staffing, I think you will see that they are concentrated in areas where they can be successful. Why would it be different in our local missions?


  13. Paul said “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.” I was a stake missionary in a ward that had 74 convert baptisms one year. The year before was nothing like that and neither was the year after, and I can’t think of anything we did differently that one special year.

    We read the scriptures about white fields ready to harvest as though they refer to the entire globe from 1830 into perpetuity. I suspect they really were about particular times and places, hence the urgency to act then and there. I believe such harvests will continue to ripen and we won’t control when or where.

  14. We read the scriptures about white fields ready to harvest as though they refer to the entire globe from 1830 into perpetuity. I suspect they really were about particular times and places, hence the urgency to act then and there. I believe such harvests will continue to ripen and we won’t control when or where.

    Good comment. Thanks John

  15. I want to apologize for my previous comment. Upon reflection, I see that I was being judgemental. I would delete (or at least edit) it if I could. Sorry.

    JAB: Things go in cycles. It sounds like your ward is making adjustments that will eventually lead to missionary coverage again, even if it means sharing a set of missionaries that is actually lodged in your sister ward. And by ‘sister ward’, I assumed you meant the other ward that shares your building.

    Personally, I suspect that will happen with many, if not most, middle-class caucasian suburban wards in the US, one set of missionaries to share among all the units that use the building. With more and more US missionaries being assigned overseas to Africa, India, and Asian countries.

    I believe that strong and established US wards will have to start relying on ward missionaries for the “official teaching of the Missionary lessons”. If you think about it, the Aaronic priesthood already has all the authority needed for missionary work (Section 20), and the Bishop holds the keys to the Aaronic priesthood activity in the ward. Coordinate the boys with the ward mission leader, and you have deacons and teachers knocking doors, priests and teachers teaching lessons and baptizing, and elders confirming.

    I don’t know what the percentage of missionaries in Latin America are being supplied by their own countries, but I imagine the percentage is getting larger all the time.

  16. No need to apologize Bookslinger. You are an amazing member missionary and our lackluster performance must drive you nuts. I always appreciate your input.

  17. I realize this is an older post – but I also just learned that you are from Tennessee… which means we may (or may not) live near each other. I can’t help wondering if you live on my end (east) of the state, or the other!

    My ward is all old people. And I don’t mean like, people in their 40’s. That’s not old. I mean, my entire ward is elderly couples. There are four recently married couples, and maybe 4 couples w/ kids. So, most of the auxiliaries are non-existent. And sadly I don’t get along with any one in or around my age group. Part of me longs for my parents’ ward up in Virginia – the upwardly mobile group. The way the lines are drawn here, it catches all of the young couples who live near campus, and all of the people who live in the old part of town. We have a single’s ward, so I never get to see any of my pre-marriage friends.

  18. It reminds me of Francis Asbury’s warning to the Methodists: “Respectability! Ah, there is death in that word.”

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