Big Ward/Little Ward: bloom where you are planted

 

My sister and I have ongoing conversations about big ward/little ward, in-Utah/outside-of-Utah church experiences. You’ve probably held similar conversations with friends and family.

Our conclusion? There are pluses and minuses everywhere.

My sister lives in San Diego in what they think is a large ward, but it’s small enough that all the Young Women meet in one class and everyone takes turns serving in time-consuming callings. Ward members treat each other like family and gather for every holiday and birthday.

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I live in a massive, stereotypical Utah ward (which I believe are now quite rare). We arrive fifteen minutes early to get a spot on the soft benches, there are never enough callings to go around (so we make up fun ones like ‘Ward Poet’) and several people go a year or two between callings. Playing the organ in sacrament meeting is done on a monthly rotation and all our classes are team taught. Past mission presidents serve in Cub Scouts, a General Primary President takes roll in the Nursery and (my kids’ favorite) David Archuletta’s voice coach is the Primary Chorister (seriously, he’s so awesome. Plays everything by ear and changes key to fit their mood).

My children are taught by humble and talented leaders and I have pretty much the best visiting teachers in the world. It’s a pretty sweet gig. I know I am useful in my own small way; I try hard to lend smiles and offer encouragement in the hallways before retreating to my beloved Nursery calling.

But sometimes….

This April I visited a beautiful little ward in Budapest, Hungary. They are a vibrant, delightful ward who embraces everyone as family. They eagerly asked my husband and I, “Are you moving here?” And I wish we could. My boys would double their Aaronic Priesthood– blessing and serving the sacrament– whereas in my home ward they often aren’t needed.

My oldest son, who just returned from a mission in Italy, vows he will never live in Utah once he has a family, “You can’t imagine, Mom, how much vitality one active family lends to a ward.”

It’s an interesting concept, and was referred to by Elder Stanley Ellis in April Conference,

“In the early years of the Church, President Brigham Young and others would call members to go to a certain place to build up the Church there. The irony is that even now we have faithful Church members everywhere who would go anywhere the prophet asked them to go. Do we really expect President Monson to individually tell more than 14 million of us where our family is needed? The Lord’s way is that we hearken to our leaders’ teachings, understand correct principles, and govern ourselves.”

What do you think? What kind of ward do you live in? What do you see as the pluses and minuses of big/small wards? How do you bloom where you are planted? And would you consider moving just to serve a congregation who needs you?

About Michelle L.

(Blog Team) never folds laundry and her car is a mess. She runs through the streets of Salt Lake City, UT, takes lots of photos, plays Uno with her five fabulous boys and buys way too many dresses for the little princess. Her husband is the most romantic man in the world because he does all the Costco shopping AND hauls it into the house (sorry to make you jealous girls). She writes at Scenes from the Wild.

28 thoughts on “Big Ward/Little Ward: bloom where you are planted

  1. Our ward has an average attendance of about 150, which I’m told makes us one of the largest in the area. I know we have the strongest youth program in the stake. We don’t have pews in our building, just rows of padded folding chairs that are set up and taken down each week.

    Every adult I know has a major calling or is really old/ill. Still, YW is understaffed (1st counselor moved months ago and hasn’t been replaced, no “advisor” callings), the stake girls camp coordinator was also the ward primary president, the librarian does double duty as primary chorister, we don’t have people called to lead the music or play the organ in sacrament, and there are never enough elders in the ward to staff the elders quorum presidency (men get called to the bishopric fairly young, and the other elders often end up in YM callings).

    Our ward stretches about three hours north/south and an hour east/west. I wouldn’t be willing to commute to another ward or move so far from my husband’s work.

    The advantages of our ward do include feeling needed, but I’d rather drift away under the radar right now. I wish there were people to sit in the foyer with during third hour. When I can’t handle RS there is literally no one in the foyers.

  2. This is really interesting. I loved reading it. My husband and I live in England, in a tiny, tiny ward. 1-2 YM and YW (total) is considering a good week. Yes, having one active family absolutely makes ALL the difference. But it puts a huge burden on that one family. You can’t ever fly under the radar in a ward where only about 30 people show up on Sundays. (My husband currently has three callings, and often will be speaking/teaching every single hour of church.) There is no nursery, and our primary is just 2 kids (brothers).

    My husband and I have discussed the big ward/small ward conundrum. Except, we’ve never lived in Utah, so maybe we’ve never known a true ‘big ward’? Either way, I think it’s hard on a family (and children in particular) to be the mainstay of a ward. I had that experience growing up, and I sometimes hated it. I think it’s nice for children to have the support of their peers in church. We’ve discussed whether we would ever move because of a ward…to be somewhere bigger sounds so nice sometimes. Not that our ward isn’t nice, but it can be discouraging to have only a handful of people attend ward events, and to feel like the church is dying. (Then we attend a ‘big’ ward and are shocked…look at all the babies! the children! They have to open the overflow! The church isn’t dying, after all.)

  3. What a timely post. Two weeks ago our stake reorganized the boundaries. Our ward was split into 3. I served as a sunbeam teacher (one of 2 classes). There were callings for those that wanted but if you didn’t it wasn’t necessary.

    Now we have the opportunity to bloom where we are planted and live in a smaller (not small) ward. I’m looking forward to it. We had grown so big that it was hard to know everyone and in fact didn’t know many.

    A previous bishop in the Middle East advised that if without a calling we should become self-employed at church. Find out what needs to be done and do it. That was from an experience he had and I’ve tried to live it.

    In a year we will more than likely be moving to the small ward I grew up in. We will be needed.

    The experiences we have help us to become the people we are meant to be. Picking a ward to live in is great but can be quite disappointing when the boundaries change and they always do.

    Very grateful for the suggestion to be self-employed at church and to bloom where we are planted, finding the good in our situations no matter what it is and getting to work. Love it!

  4. I grew up in a few different places around the country and our wards were usually a bit on the small side, as well as being very transient (most wards I lived in growing up included a military base). One of the blessings I received was the chance to serve at a somewhat young age, because the ward we moved into when I was 11 had no piano players. My mother played, and when I turned 12 I started playing for a lot of different things. I also spent a year when I was about 14 playing for sacrament meeting for the ward that shared our building because they didn’t have any members or missionaries that could play. There are some advantages to having a smaller ward, but I’ve found that no matter the size of the ward there will still be people that are more capable and willing to serve than others. Sometimes in smaller wards people can get burned out because they are asked to do so much, and sometimes in bigger wards people can feel unnoticed because they aren’t needed.

    Now I own a house in Utah and my kids are growing up in a somewhat larger ward that encompasses only about 1/2 a mile square. Although I know this is the right choice for me and my family, it is very different from my upbringing. I think our ward is a pretty good size though, not too big and not too small. We have a wide range of ages and family sizes too, so we have good-size youth and primary programs without being overwhelming. There are some advantages to my current ward, like the close proximity of all of us to each other and the fact that we have so many willing people who show up and participate. There are some things I miss from my childhood, though, like feeling like we had a true ‘ward family’ since most members didn’t live near family and like having full-time missionaries involved in the ward. Ideally it would be great if someday everywhere in the church we have large, robust wards, and I think we could get there if we all lift where we are.

  5. Sorry – phone problem.

    … a Utah ward, but we just moved after two years in a Provo ward with a shockingly high number of less active or unwilling to serve people. The ward was highly transient and there weren’t enough “big” callings to go around, so some combination of factors led a lot of couples and families to drop off the map. Too many people would accept “smaller” callings, but then not fulfill them. My husband and I were needed, though it took us a while to *feel* needed and valued. Even though wards numbers were large, ward participation was small. We are sad to have left that ward that we finally came to love and know how to really serve in (though excited to be out of the apartment itself). I learned that even if there are a handful of solid, active, ever-serving families, even a large Utah ward can desperately need all of its members to dig in.

  6. We are currently in a small ward; I have 3 callings and my husband has 2. I love it because I know so many people and I feel so much love when I go to church. But I also feel so weary after church because I have several jobs to do while I’m there, not to mention picking up a little slack from those who don’t show up. I usually don’t mind serving because that’s how wards function, but when people just don’t show up, it increases the burden on others. That’s the main thing I don’t like about small wards. Burnout seems to happen more quickly.

    We will be relieved in a month or two when we move to a different ward, not because we don’t like our current ward, but because we will actually get a small break! It will be nice to just go to church just to worship for a while. I think the ward we are moving to is a large one, so we’ll get a chance to see the differences.

  7. All I care about anymore is whether my children are happy with whatever we’re doing for church. That isn’t always easy, and sometimes there’s nothing I can do if they aren’t happy. It is hard when they’re isolated because of language or geography.

    And yes, we have moved to be with a certain group of members, but they served us as much as we did them.

  8. The struggle in such a large ward is a certain feeling of deficiency. When there are several highly education and/or professional musicians in the ward, it feels very awkward to play piano in the Primary Program knowing that I’m making errors every other line despite practice.

    I like a happy, medium-sized ward. A meaningful calling for everyone (as opposed to being called to the literal /tablecloth/ /committee/ in one bursting ward — twice!), yet enough people that the youth can have Mormon friends in their grade level at their own school.

  9. Average sacrament attendance is around 150 (sometimes it helps to put size in terms of real numbers.) We used to be around 220, and I felt that was actually a good size ward. Big enough to get things done, but small enough to know most everyone. Not so much a challenge for me as an adult, but it’s nice to have between 20 – 30 active youth, around 50 in primary, etc. I think you can bloom where you’re planted, but have to admit, always serving in key leadership positions can wear you out.

  10. We recently moved into a ward much like the one you described you live in. I am really happy there.

    We moved from a small ward like you visited. While it was nice in many ways, I think the burnout took its toll on everyone. We lived there for five years and it was always double or triple callings. Everyone was so busy it felt like no one had time for anything else. There wasnt much time (or energy) for socializing. The ward had a lot of older members who felt the had “done their time” so while we had about 100 active members, 40% of the ward was actually “running it”. The YW/YM auxiliaries had a total of 8 together. It was hard with such small numbers when it came to service projects/lessons/activities. Shortly before we moved the ward boundaries switched and what a breath of fresh air new families were to us! However I was surprised to learn that the new families were having such a hard time adjusting to their new ward. I think it was because we were all so desperate to share the load of work, they were all immediately placed in callings while some exhausted members laid back for a break for the first time in years. But then again, maybe the overall welcome in that ward wasnt that great. Who knows.

    Our new ward fits our personality much better. We were so surprised when our bishop came and visited with us when we moved in. Our old ward’s bishop simply didn’t have the time for it. It was so nice to sit and chit chat for the sake of just knowing each other better, rather than to quickly extend a calling snd then beeing shoo’d out the door for the nect appointment. It’s a good mix of ages and overall pretty balanced in all auxiliaries. And although my kids are certainly not the only kids, we all feeling very welcomed and included. I dont at all feel like “just another young family”. And ward activities are so much more fun when more than the same 15 people attend. :-)

  11. I’m in a medium-sized ward. I feel everyone who wants a calling has a meaningful one and the only callings hard to Fill have been nursery leaders – I love nursery when I’m not pregnant, so I would gladly fill that need again if they ever feel it’s time to take me out of the RS presidency. :) I feel very lucky to be in this ward despite some hoa drama and moderately high turnover. It’s solid and few of us feel burned out or unnecessary. I’ve definitely felt the opposite in large student wards at BYU – redundant, bored, why-am-I-accepting-this-calling.

  12. Wow. This was great to read the contrasts of wards. It has been on my mind and a subject of conversation among friends as we attend (and murmur too much) a massive mid singles ward that has 700+ in attendance weekly. It is overwhelming to say the least. I needed the reminder to bloom where I’m planted. Yikes. Thanks Michelle! :)

  13. I’ve lived in and experienced all ward/branch sizes. They each had their own pros and cons. My favorite though was living in a branch in Georgia as a teenager. Our branch boundaries covered about 5 towns, pretty spread out, so when we came to church we all stayed to visit afterwards and enjoyed being in the company of other church members. My siblings and I were the only members at school for several years until a couple of young men were baptized. We had a wonderful stake that provided opportunities for the youth to meet and get to know each other through church sports, firesides, dances, and other activities. There was a lot of traveling to get to them but I never heard my parents complain about it. Instead they went out of their way to pick up youth in neighboring towns so they had rides to the activities too. My parents both grew up in the heart of Salt Lake City and were used to the big Utah wards. Their service in the branch was the perfect example to me of blooming where they were planted.

  14. I joined the church in a pretty big ward (about 200 attending? That’s big for Europe) and since moving back to my original home town after my mission I’m now in a small branch (50 max on a Sunday) that is about a 40 minute drive away from my home. It kind of warms my heart to read that people mention members burning out in smaller congregations, because that’s what I’ve been going through the past few months. Though for me it’s been more the social situation at church than anything else that has made me dread going lately. The dynamics between people are completely different in large and small congregations. So feeling emotionally all shook up and then having to face a pretty intense social situation has been really difficult at the moment…

  15. thank you for a timely topic. We moved from a needy smaller unit into the heart of a traditional big ward in Utah for the good of our family, we thought. After two years it is clear this was not a good choice. We need to rethink, prayer, and prepare to move where we are needed, can serve, and bloom.

  16. #9 Kay
    “When there are several highly education and/or professional musicians in the ward, it feels very awkward to play piano in the Primary Program knowing that I’m making errors every other line despite practice.”

    Please don’t feel intimidated by other more experienced musicians. When I here a pianist at church make mistakes as they play, I don’t really hear the mistakes rather I hear a pianist learning and becoming more experienced. To me this a beautiful thing. It would be fun to never make mistakes while accompanying, but it just isn’t how it works.

  17. Oh, I am so jealous of that little ward you went to in Hungary! I served my mission in Hungary, several years ago now, and I still miss those good people.

    I’m currently in a modest sized ward in Southern Utah, but the ward is an aging one, and remains excited every time a new family moves in. I do feel more needed here than I have in other Utah wards.

    We lived in central PA for a while, and my husband and I were actually assigned to attend a branch an hour away to bolster the small unit there. It made me appreciate wards where the numbers are high enough to fill all major callings. Generally speaking, I have felt more needed in wards outside Utah, but that is mostly my own experience. (I’ve never had to play the piano in a Utah ward, for instance, but I had several musical callings outside Utah, where my moderate talents were more useful).

  18. Many years ago we were inspired to move from a large ward (Australian large – about 200) with a great active primary & youth program (our kids were still only primary age) in a large stake close to a temple to a smaller ward in a smaller stake on the other side of Australia with closest temple 3.5 hours away. I thought it was only temporary and by the time our kids were youth we would be back to our home ward. But it wasn’t. We are still here (over 8 years) – still doing a lot in the ward/stake. Kids are some of the only active in age groups and only members at school.

    Years ago when I realised we would be here long term I worried about my eldest having no church members her age I started praying she would find one – or someone would move into the ward. We were inspired to send her to a different high school – quite a bit out of the way. Her best friend there is now a member her age from another ward. The only two Mormons their age – both lonely in their wards and both have found each other. Both have so many similar likes (outside of church) it is amazing. I worried about her but seeing this answer to my prayers shows me that Heavenly Father has his eye on her (and the other girl)too.

    I have come to realise this is where Heavenly Father wants us to stay and stay we will. We are frantically getting ready this morning for a drive to the temple straight after school, for one session. It is far but my kids love temple trips, and we make a big deal out of them.

    There are hardships in small wards but also lots of blessings. I don’t feel I have anyone at church that understands me – I don’t feel I have a lot of friends (unlike my old ward), but sacrament meeting is just about me and the Saviour – that’s why I go and I always leave feeling uplifted.

    Each my kids learn the piano because in Australia finding a pianist is hard in any ward – but our small ward has about 5 accomplished players – but one day I know they will be in a small ward and be needed with their piano skills.

    I believe the Lord puts us were He needs us and where we need to be. We need to make sure we are open to the inspiration when it comes. That first step was hard but I am so grateful for it.

  19. I grew up in wards where they needed me and I needed them. I enjoyed BYU but knew I would choose to live outside Utah for the wards.
    I am in a small ward. Unfortunately, it is entirely too small for my demographic and I am tired of saying goodbye to people as they all move away. I’m not having any more children so I won’t have anything in common with the young people who will continue to move in. This last year was really stretching it….all my church friends were going through sending their first child to kindergarten but I wanted to talk about my first going to high school. In this ward my preschoolers always have peers but then they all move away one by one until they are all gone and my kids are left with no one.
    And the old people just get older and they don’t want to talk about teenagers and elementary school kids.
    I’m a little lonely and I worry my kids are lonely. Sometimes I think about moving but I can’t justify the cost of moving just to find people like me and people like my kids.
    There are plenty of good things that I love about my ward. It is a great ward in many, many ways. It is nice to be noticed and needed and appreciated and our imperfections are shrugged off. We are the big fish in a little pond. My teenagers are gushed about. My kids can wear ill-fitting wrinkled clothing and forget to do their hair and there is no one to judge them or me.
    I LIKE the people in my ward. I wouldn’t trade it. And I’m proud of myself for trying to make it work for my kids and I’m grateful for the people who reach out to my kids so that they aren’t too lonely.

  20. Elissa – your story made me remember that a year and a half ago I was praying for my children to have a friend at church and within a couple of weeks they both got someone. I prayed in a girl from another ward who was having a hard time to come just often enough that it helped my daughter feel less alone. We don’t see her anymore but it was something.
    The friend for my son I prayed in was baptized. He and his sister miraculously decided to get baptized right when I wanted to schedule my 8 year old’s baptism and right when I had already set up a dinner with the missionaries at a single mom’s house (so she could invite the missionaries over) and her son needed these siblings too in a different way and it all came together in those few days.
    Unfortunately, after a year this family moved away abruptly. My son misses this kid who was his friend. But hey, he’s got his fan club of preschoolers who idolize him. These kids are fascinated with him because non of them have siblings over age 6, so a 13 year old boy who is the size of an adult but plays like a kid is exciting. And there is one pretty girl his age (who asked him out because she isn’t Mormon enough to know that there is no dating before 16, but then later told him she doesn’t like him anymore) so that’s something, right?
    I guess I need to start praying again.

  21. Oh, yeah, I do have to start praying again. A family of three little boys who love my son are moving.

  22. We attend Church in a tiny, tiny Group (not even a Branch) in Africa. About 20 people attend on Sundays, many of them investigators. (Currently there are 41 members in the group). My husband and I have been members for 28 years, and we have both held many callings in the two Branches we attended previously.(The highest number of callings for one of us was 7! and that included Seminary teacher), so we know about the burn out described above. We find this interesting phenomena in Africa – we have many converts that are happy in the Gospel, UNTIL they get a calling or are asked to help with something. Then we never see them again. This just adds to the pressure on the families that do make the difference – extra callings, home teaching, visiting teaching. I occasionally attend the large Ward in my eldest daughter’s hometown, and I love it! Everyone is busy and has a calling – and yes, some are made up!- but they are not so busy and flooded with Church work that they can’t visit , chat and just be friends. At home we are overwhelmed and this leads to real Spiritual lows. We also often never just visit with other Church members, we are always motivating them to come back to Church, do their calling, be part of the group. To all those in a big Ward – enjoy! To those in small units – chin up, and remember, you can’t be everything to everyone…

  23. A self imposed Mormon diaspora would be a great thing. “A little levening leveneth the whole lump”, but not if it isn’t mixed in. We need to get out into the world so that we can share the gospel as it is done best, friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor.

    I attended the branch in my grandmother’s town. The members we so happy. We were asked repeatedly if we were moving in to town. You see, our family would make the ward large enough that the next part of the building could be added. But I was bishop of my own ward then. Perhaps when I retire, I will call myself on a mission to that beautiful town in Oklahoma.

  24. This makes me smile because the church unit I grew up in wasn’t even a ward. it was a branch and so small that my cousins, who visited, would call it a twig. I remember having church in my own house. This was 30 years ago and my home town in Arkansas still has a branch, albeit a larger one.

    I’m just grateful to live in an actual ward where there are enough adults to staff every organization’s presidency without redundancy, even if we struggle to staff the remaining callings.When our RS Presidency struggles to find teachers to call, I remind them that the same teacher can teach 3 weeks in the month – or the presidency could do all the teaching.

    I haven’t ever chosen a location based on what the church was like there, we just follow inspiration in which jobs to follow, so I can’t speak to that, but I do have to say that I have noticed one big difference in folks who grow up in small units – they know how to serve reliably. We have a lot of young married couples in the Air Forcce here for a short time for training. The majority of them come from Utah and many of them do not seem to know how to be a reliable, contributing member of the ward.

    Growing up in a small branch, I led the mushc in Sacrament Meeting at 11 after my dad handed me a hymnbook and told me to teach myself how to lead music. I was Primary secretary as soon as I gradated Primary and I held a stake calling at 17. We have people in my current serving in callings who just don’t show up on Sunday to teach their classes, or just completely drop the ball on events they are supports to organize or never take the initiative to lead a committee they are in charge of. It’s really too bad.

  25. Thank you so much for your wonderful comments; I’ve enjoyed every single one. It’s amazing how the church is the same everywhere and yet different. I’ve especially loved hearing international stories.

    There are pluses and minuses everywhere. Trust me, lots of kids are lonely and big wards too. And it’s really hard to give each girl the attention she deserves when you have 19 Laurels in your class.

  26. I live in a ward that has usually about 70 to 90 in attendance. Our primary has only 3 children since most young people move away for work. I love the closeness we feel for each other, but in a tiny ward we have to work at not having friction, too. We are so excited every time someone moves into our ward. I wouldn’t trade it…love it and our small community!

  27. Throughout my life I’ve been in both types of units. Most recently we dubbed 5 years in a branch our mission. It was intense and a great learning experience. I miss the intense love and relationships we had there. The primary had 7 kids at one point, half were mine. My daughter went to seminary with one other girl, they became good friends.

    When we moved to Iowa we soothed our daughter that although the move would be hard she’d end up with more girls in YWs, more member friends. To our great disappointment few of those girls were kind or friendly. The move was horrid for our daughter and I’m still adjusting to a larger ward also. I was just called to be Primary secretary where there are 100 kids with 3 additional families moving in soon. I hope they split our ward soon because I see more benefits from a small ward. It feels unfair for our ward to be so large when surrounding us there are branches in need of our numbers. Isn’t this a hospel of relationships and individual contact? How will a bishop ever know his ward, or a RS pres meet all the sisters when there are hundreds under their stewardship with families moving in and out?

    The small ward seems to be the best environment for loving ties which help people stay actively engaged, while keeping the programs focused on the most precious parts of the gospel because there aren’t resources for elaboration. These wards are more focused on missionary work also because they want more members. My branch president often reminded me (when exasperated with inexperienced/unreliable members) that I should do a good job training if I ever wanted to be released. Now I’m thrilled to have witnessed the spiritual development of those new leaders.

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