Lately I’ve been thinking about what makes a good ward. What is that magic ingredient that makes some congregations thrive while others struggle?
It’s having a lot of young people! I once thought, inspired by my Los Angeles singles ward. I loved that we were all in the same phase of life, especially in Relief Society, where it felt we truly were sisters united in conquering the struggles of careers and dating and traffic.
It’s diversity! I thought, when attending my Los Angeles family ward, home to many converts, young families in student housing, elderly people who’d lived in the area for decades, and a whole branch of Chinese members who spoke varying degrees of English.
Okay, so it can’t be diversity… I thought, after recently visiting two stellar congregations full of blonde heads in Provo, Utah. And yet there was something in those wards, this strong undercurrent of stalwart Saints that held its own kind of power.
While reading the Book of Mormon recently, I think I may have found a new answer and my favorite one yet. In Mosiah 18:21, it says,
“And he commanded them that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.”
It triggered a memory of a lesson I once had (no doubt in Young Women’s) where the teacher talked about the difference between woven and knit fabric.
Woven, she said, is created by fibers intertwined perpendicularly, by what are called a warp and a weft. The warp moves from top to bottom, while the weft goes from left to right, creating a pattern like this.
Woven fabrics are strong and durable, but at the expense of one thing — stretch.
On the other hand, there’s knit. The construction of knit is a bit more complicated, but the short version is it’s a series of loops, usually created by just one thread.
Both images sourced from here, where you can learn more cool facts about fabric.
Sometimes knit has big knobby loops (i.e. chunky sweater) and other times they’re so tiny you can’t even see them (free t-shirt you got at work).
But all knit stretches — and our hearts are meant to do the same.
Each of us as members of the church is assigned to a specific ward, where the idea is that, united with the other members as a single thread, we become knit together in unity and love. We are supposed to be able to weather a lot of stretch, to evolve and adapt to the needs of the people at church.
Now first let me say that I strongly believe a testimony needs to be between an individual and the Lord, and if we base them on the people or happenings at church, we are bound to be disappointed. But that doesn’t mean what takes place at church isn’t important — church is where we worship! It is the setting in which we build our belief.
Church should feel inviting, not intimidating, welcoming and not judgmental. It should feel like the difference between sweat pants and skinny jeans.
I’m a fan of skinny jeans okay — I believe they fit a woman’s body just the way it was meant to be fit. And yet the moment I get home, the second I step across that threshold of safety, it’s off with the skinny jeans and on with the sweats.
Goodbye woven, hello knit (and no, jeggings are not allowed in this discussion).
I think that’s how a good ward feels — after a week of slight but building discomfort, a day of blessed release.
So what does that actually mean, for a ward to stretch? I think it’s as simple as individual members going out of their way to take care of each other, i.e. —
-Making friends with a stranger (this sounds like a Primary answer but I’m nervous every time I sit in a new Relief Society).
-Patiently and kindly answering potentially uncomfortable questions from an investigator — or hey, even a lifetime member.
-Providing gluten free bread during the sacrament for the person who is Celiac.
-Giving real, non-glamorous service, the kind that is not planned ahead and may not come with ‘refreshments.’
Here are a few ways I’ve seen it happen.
Exhibit A: My Los Angeles family ward
Relief Society was home to married women, single women, and women in inter-faith marriages alike, and consistently taught that we were all needed. The 2nd counselor in the Bishopric had been a member of the church for a mere four years. We took turns teaching Gospel Principles to investigators, bringing food to baptisms, which happened almost monthly. We had a Chinese New Year’s party that attracted huge numbers of Chinese people, opening a door for the Gospel to enter a country that would otherwise be shut. Were the ward members perfect? Of course not. But they stretched in all directions.
Exhibit B: My home ward in Provo, Utah, chock full of Apostle’s descendants and BYU Professors
In sacrament meeting when I recently visited, a woman stood up to introduce a musical number to be sung by the Young Women, and my mom whispered that she was Brother So-and-So’s new wife. It felt jarring, because I have only ever known Brother So-and-So’s first wife. This new person was not Sister So-and-So, how dare she pretend to be! This was my home ward! Enrollment was not open!
These icky thoughts filled me before I checked myself and tried to see it from her perspective and imagine how difficult would it be to come into a ward where your new spouse and his family have lived for thirty years. I don’t know why the So-and-So’s got divorced, in fact it is none of my business. But I saw that the sister clearly felt at home among her new ward family. She gave a heartfelt testimony about the music, and it was obvious she had poured a lot of energy into helping the Young Women prepare to sing it. I felt the spirit as I listened, felt appreciation for this woman — I stretched.
Exhibit C: My new ward in Orange County
I admit I went grudgingly the first week. I’d just gotten used to my last ward, had made friends there, felt like I knew my place, and now had to start all over. I didn’t know why I was so nervous, especially when I had my husband as a wing man, but it felt like the first day of school. We began wandering in search of the chapel and not five steps in were approached by a smiling stranger in a suit who asked, “Are you guys new?” He introduced us to a member of the Bishopric, who introduced us to the Bishop, who introduced me to a friendly woman who got my number and said she’d text me if and when the women get together. That stranger in the suit had his heart knit into the fabric of is ward, and for a new person, it stretched.
The problem with asking “what makes a good ward” or even saying “a good ward should do this or that” is that it implies the ward itself is capable of doing anything. The ward will not stretch itself, neither can the leadership alone make it do so. I think it’s up to us, the individual loops, to make it happen.
Sometimes a ward can feel more woven than knit. Sometimes people favor rigidity over compromise, or veil pride as strength or stalwartness. And again I think if and when that happens, the only way we can survive it is to decide on our own to stretch, even though it sometimes feels like poking knitting needles into our hearts.
I’ve come to believe that what makes a “good ward” has far less to do with the demographic of the people in it, and far more to do with the condition of their hearts.
So what if it’s a little frumpy, or doesn’t look perfect, so what if it is more humble than hip. I believe a good ward should feel like your favorite pair of sweat pants after a long day of skinny jeans.