Ward Transit, Volume 26, Number 3 (Spring 2003)

Ward Transit
Personal Essay
Ann Gardner Stone

My friends tell me that I am the only person they know who has had the same phone number for decades.  I’m not sure what that says about me or about them except that they have moved, some a lot, and I haven’t.

I have lived in the same Midwestern ward for over twenty-five years, which makes me an anomaly.  I am what’s known as an “old-timer” and have been for a long time—even before the streaks of gray in my hair made me obviously suited for the title.  This ward is unlike wards of the West where I grew up, wards where people lived and were buried and the population seldom changed except when ward boundaries were redrawn.  However, it is like many of the wards around urban population centers or major educational institutions. 

Located in a suburb of Chicago, close to Northwestern University and its high-quality graduate schools and in a prime corporate corridor where business execs shuttle in and out, it possesses the perfect conditions for transience.  And that is the kind of ward we have—one where people stop, but only briefly.

When I first moved into the ward, it was more of a typical suburban ward with many stable families, lots of leadership, a thriving youth program, and a steady flub of students who passed through at varying intervals.  We had dental students who were committed for at least four years; a few medical students and residents arrived from time to time.  Many MBAs came for one or two years.  A handful of Ph.D. candidates would wander through, and then there were the corporate executives who sailed in for unspecified amounts of time, but usually not long-term.  For the most part, these “transients” provided new energy, were available to fill staffing gaps, and made it fun to introduce them to life beyond the Wasatch front.  Some stayed and put down roots, but mostly they did their two or four years and were gone.

There are pros and cons to this sort of church social structure.  Some of the positives I’ve mentioned: fresh ideas and new perspectives, people not burned out by the chronic problems facing any ward, a steady supply of new friend possibilities, an abundance of outstanding musical talent (because of Northwestern’s great music program), and a new crop of potential Scout leaders and Young Women’s leaders.  The negatives include that perennial problem of the few new people who never “unpack” and spend their time here yearning for the West, or worse, telling us how “quaint” it is to be in the “mission field.”  Those comments really seem to mean, “Why can’t you do things the way they do in Utah—the RIGHT way?”  The impermanence fosters a tendency to avoid building meaningful and long-term relationships because you know that this new friend is just going to move in a year.

I have had to say good-bye to too many good friends over the years.  It is a wrenching and painful experience.  Feelings of rejection bubble to the surface.  Chicago—meaning “me”—must not be fun enough or they would not need to leave for something better.  People make noises about coming back to visit, but only a handful ever do.  You know they have moved on with their lives, are having new exciting experiences, are making new friends to replace you.  All you have is another farewell party to plan and a void to fill.

When new people arrive, you may hold back and thus run the risk of being perceived as standoffish or unfriendly.  Or perhaps worse, you miss the opportunity to get to know someone wonderful.  Often the ward leadership institutes the well-meant practices of making sure the new people feel welcome.  There are special dinners, get-acquainted events, and a concerted effort to have all the newcomers speak in Sacrament meeting.  What this often means is that the newcomers bond only with each other and there are permanent ward members who haven’t spoken in a Sacrament meeting for years.  When I hear the oft-repeated phrase, “I really miss the mountains” in a talk, I’d love to hear it followed with “but I really like your lake.”  Or when the obligatory reference to the “brutal Chicago winters” is made, would it be so hard to say something like, “but I can see that they have built your character and made you strong”?  I also wonder if the steady stream of well-educated, well-trained students that fill the leadership pool keep new converts from sharpening their skills and developing their spiritual muscles because they are not needed—or at least don’t think they are.

My ward has continued to change over the years.  It hasn’t grown—in fact, it has gotten smaller, and although we aren’t struggling, I wouldn’t call us thriving.  Housing costs have prohibited younger couples just out of school from settling in the area, even if they might want to.  Our Primary has shrunk, Seminary has shriveled, and the youth are few in number.  Many of our families have sent children to BYU only to see them stay out West.  When the parents reach retirement age, they seem to migrate west as well—often to be near their transplanted kids or aging parents or to flee our less-than kind winters.  Those of us still here have become somewhat defensive about our decision to stay.  One wonders if anyone really wants to live and die here or if it only happens by default or the lack of resources to move to “better climes.”  I often joke that if they don’t carry me out feet first, I’ll be the one left to turn out the lights. 

I know that our ward is not unique.  I also know that there are wards with much more severe problems, where people hold two or three jobs, where teachers don’t show up, and where the bishop looks like he’s always on High Alert.  I think the transience that we experience is endemic in society at large, and I think there is a price to pay.  Perhaps technology, which affords us easier access to instant communication and travel, can soften the impact of impermanence, but I think there will always be something missing.  To say that the Church is the same everywhere we go is true in that the Savior is always at the core, but I always feel a little piece of my hearts has gone out the door as this year’s crop begins to pack their bags.