Last weekend, we went back to Church for the first time since March. Our Stake President is a doctor and is very wisely cautious about the procedures to protect all Church members in his purview from spreading Covid. He only allowed Church services to resume when cases were finally consistently coming down in our state (since AZ summers are crazy hot, people go indoors more where air circulation increases the risk of getting it unlike in colder climates where you go inside during the winter. Winters here are bee-yoo-tee-ful.[1]

Generally, the precautions were pretty well administered:

  • 100% mask wearing except for a few toddlers.
  • Many elderly people stayed home (and the meeting was available on Zoom).
  • Every other row was designated as empty, and family groups sat six feet apart.
  • The overflow was opened when it started to look like it was too many people.
  • YM who did the sacrament wore masks and gloves and did some safety theater with hand sanitizer first.
    • All bread was in individual cups.
    • There was a discard tray that was separate.
    • Every person was given the sacrament directly from the YM, not passing it down the row.
  • No singing, just organ music–which was also a lot shorter than singing all 4 verses of I Believe in Christ, although sacrament prep time took quite a bit longer.

The only thing that we didn’t do correctly was that there were more than 50 people present. They should have had a sign up. But still, it was overall not bad, and it was nice to see everyone. I haven’t loved this ward since our boundary change a few years ago, but there are many great people in it. I guess I just preferred my last one. But at least this last Sunday I thought, “This could be worse. Maybe we (mostly) dodged a bullet with this ward.”

The Church discourages ward shopping. Unlike Evangelical Churches that try to entice congregants to join their ranks with programs and preaching suited to different people’s tastes, our Church teaches that you should “bloom where you’re planted,” and enforces this by literally making it impossible to attend a different ward than your own on a regular basis. You can go wherever you want, but you won’t belong. You won’t get a calling, your records won’t move to follow you, and you will be a visitor, homeless in a ward sense. When we talk about a ward being a family, it is in an apt metaphor. Not only is it the place where you should find support when you need it (or as Robert Frost put it “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”), but you will also find people whose views and values may horrify you and even embarrass you. There will be creeps. There will be people who say racist and sexist things. There will be a few boundary-less busy-bodies with no social filter. Yep, it’s pretty much exactly like any other extended family.

Speaking of homeless, we are moving. Well, we are moving out at least. We haven’t yet found a place to move into. We will probably be Airbnbing it for a few months while we wait for someone to list something that we don’t hate. There were tons of great homes this summer, before we were on the market. The housing market in our city is insane right now. We listed and had two offers within days and are under contract above our list price. Our plan was to buy in a specific part of town that has lower property taxes than where we live (and raised our kids) because we could get a house that’s on par or better but for less money. It was a great theory, but so far we just keep seeing stuff that’s not right for us: backs on a loud, busy street or has had zero upgrades in any of the bathrooms or the kitchen is too small or there’s no walk in closet in the master, or the flooring is cheap or the pool doesn’t have a water feature. We’re too old to deal with all that crap again, or so we think.

Part of the decision to move for Mormons who attend Church always involves vetting the local ward, trying to decide if it’s going to be a good match. We did that when we moved here (and we hit the jackpot!), and this time, it feels even more important since it’s like moving from one house to another. I don’t want new problems, but I don’t want to lose the things I liked about my old situation either. Trying to make this change without being able to actually attend a real ward meeting is kind of a crap shoot, unfortunately. But it does make me think about the things I most want in a ward. Here’s my list:

  • An open-minded interesting Gospel Doctrine teacher with thought-provoking discussion. A sense of humor helps. Being aware of current events helps. Things to avoid:
    • Boring, read from the manual teachers with literally the same threadbare material I’ve heard for 50 years and the “same ten answers” regurgitated for every classroom question. Honestly, kill me now.
    • People who make sexist, homophobic or racist comments and go unchecked. If I have to be the one to say something contrary, so be it, I will, but ideally, there shouldn’t be broad acceptance of these attitudes.
    • Total lack of curiosity among class members and teachers. Literalism and certainty and focus on authority all kill curiosity. Members who tattle on teachers for saying anything not explicitly in the manual kill thinking.
  • A demographic mix. At age 52, I should probably not be among the “youngest” in the ward, nor the oldest; I should be somewhere in the middle, at the upper end of the middle even. There should be enough kids for a real Primary, and enough teens for a real YM / YW program.
  • Leadership should respect science enough to follow reasonable precautions regarding Covid transmission. I’ve heard there’s a ward in Mesa (or somewhere in East Valley) where ward members were so divided on mask-wearing that the ward holds one meeting with masks and one without. That, to me, is cuckoo-balls. I mean, they should definitely track and share their data with the CDC (or with some reputable scientific group now that the CDC is gagged). It’s just a weird world we are living in here in the USA right now, and if ward leaders are treating this anti-mask BS equally with actual safe protocols, no thanks. That tells me something is wrong with the leadership.
  • Leadership in general is a big factor of whether a ward is good or not, and it’s hard to gauge during a pandemic, but the types of things I don’t want include leaders who are arrogant about their own authority and certainty or too pushy about their personal opinions with the members in their charge. As Joseph Smith said, “It feels good not to be trammeled.” (He may have then trammeled a few folks, but he didn’t like it happening to him.) I like leaders who are friendly and approachable, who don’t scramble to check the handbook for routine things, who aren’t always asking higher ups how to do things, and who are respectful to the members and not full of themselves. And by golly, they’d better pick good speakers because nobody’s got time for listening to bad talks with terrible topics.
  • The ward members can’t be clubby or cliquish. That gets old. Unfortunately, a lot of wards have cherry-picked a few “favorite” families who kind of rule the roost, and to a newcomer who doesn’t know why these randos are super special, man that sucks. It is a huge turn-off. It’s like they’ve been pre-anointed by the ward as the future leaders of everything, and they often revel in their social status and power. I don’t think all wards have these people, but most do. I absolutely despise it when someone who was a bishop years before I was ever in that ward still insists on (or the ward members insist on it) being called “bishop” still. Get over yourself! I was once Nursery Leader, and I don’t insist on everyone calling me that forever.
  • Any ward members making thinly veiled swipes that are taken out of the GOP playbook are gross, in my book.
  • I’d rather be somewhere in the middle for wealth. I don’t love being in a ward where I’m among the wealthiest, nor the poorest, and I do like some socio-economic diversity, but too much swing isn’t great, IMO, in terms of how the ward runs. Both ends of the spectrum can be eccentric.

A few good signs:

  • Women wearing pants occasionally, and nobody caring. Likewise, facial hair and colored shirts for men.
  • People saying hello and being genuinely welcoming to visitors / strangers.
  • Kids having fun without being totally out of control (ideally), and adults who enjoy them.
  • The majority of the Relief Society having careers (not just jobs).
  • Talks that are actually funny, not just “funny” like when the GAs make sexist or other stereotyped comments and everyone courtesy laughs. Quoting anyone other than a GA or C.S. Lewis is a pretty good sign. Especially rap lyrics or something else not traditionally heard at Church.
  • Racial diversity (a girl can dream), and single adults holding prominent callings, not just married couples running everything.

Let’s hear from you:

  • What do you think makes a ward good vs. bad?
  • What do you try to avoid?
  • What symptoms do you look for to assess the ward?
  • Have you successfully shopped for a good ward?


[1] Summers are like living under Satan’s ball sac, no offense.