The Transient Ward

Lately I’ve been thinking about two categories of people in our ward: (1) Long-term members who lay down roots (mostly old-timers who have lived in this city for most, if not all, of their lives, but also a few individuals and families who plan to live here 5+ years), and (2) Short-term transplants, mostly from the West, who will only stay for a year or two. Looking at our ward as a whole, long-termers comprise about 1/3 of the active members, and short-termers comprise the remaining 2/3… The short-termers contribute to the ward in many important ways. Many bring with them knowledge and experience with respect to church leadership, programs, and doctrine. They often give generously of their time, and financial resources, to assist ward members in need.

The issue with short-termers is just that—they’re here for the short run, transients, likely to leave once they reach the “2-year or 2-kid limit.” Then they move back West to be nearer to family, or to other locations to pursue better educational, employment, or housing opportunities. Although my husband and I have chosen to stay in the ward (for now), I completely understand what motivates many members to leave.

My concern is not so much with the fact that these members are leaving, but the way in which some approach their short-term stay in our ward. When there is no expectation of permanence, building a stable church community is not necessarily a priority. Why invest your sweat and tears into a primary or YW/YM program that you know your children will never attend? Why go to the effort to repair a rocky relationship with a ward member if you know you’ll be moving within the next few months? Why attend those extra stake meetings if you’re barely even getting to know the people in your own ward?

Occasionally, the short-termers and long-termers hit heads. We’ve noticed that the two groups approach ward problems in distinct manners: short-termers often look for the dramatic fix-it-all-this-week solutions, and long-termers tend to propose incremental and low-key measures. At times there have also been undercurrents of resentment toward the short-termers. In their excitement to move on to the next stage of their lives, some short-termers are overly critical of the city/lifestyle that the long-termers have chosen to embrace (no one likes people talking about their neighborhood as “ghetto,” “worldly,” or “wicked”). Also, some of the long-termers are tired of making friends who just leave, and of throwing yet another going-away party for a family they barely know. When do the long-termers get a party thrown for them, where everyone can tell them how much they appreciate all they’ve done for the ward?

A few months ago, my husband and I were invited to a fireside in a neighboring stake where Elder Tingey of the Seventy spoke. This neighboring stake is also comprised of many transient members, and Elder Tingey directly addressed part of his remarks to these individuals. He invited the short-termers to (paraphrasing) “unpack their bags mentally” and to “lay down spiritual, if not physical, roots within the church community.” He didn’t attempt to pressure anyone to stay if they didn’t want to, but he chastised the short-term members for having one foot in their current ward, and one foot in their future/past wards. He then invited the transient members to contribute to their wards and stake in the same manner that they would if they had just purchased a home in a suburb and were planning on living there the rest of their lives.

Since that night, my husband and I have been pondering over Elder Tingey’s words. We haven’t come up with many answers. I’d be interested to hear about the experiences others have had in transient wards.

How do you mentally unpack your bags in a ward you only plan to stay in for a short time?

How do you motivate others to plant spiritual roots that they may never see grow tall enough to bear fruit?

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  1. AmyB says:

    Hmmm. I’m having a reaction to Elder Tingey’s chastisement of short term members. In my last unit (inner city, much transience) I planned the music, played the organ, accompanied the choir, served in the yw presidency, and was primary president. My husband directed the choir, served as ward mission leader, eq president,ward clerk and a couple other things that I can’t remember right now. Most of the auxilliaries were led by transient transplants from the west.

    The situtation in my current unit, an inner-city branch in a different borough, is similar.

    I guess what I’m saying, is that if I were to diagnose the cause of the challenges and difficulties of these types of wards, it is not that the transplants aren’t doing enough–in fact they are often overtaxed and being bled dry. That’s been my personal experience.

  2. Maria says:

    Amy,

    To me, it’s not so much about the number of hours that a member puts into their calling(s) (I think I would actually agree that most transplants invest significant time and energy–often to the point of burnout), but more about the mentality in which some transient members approach their stay in the ward. You can have someone killing themself for a program or activity, but still not “get it.”

    I’m struggling to articulate what it means to “get it.” Maybe an analogy will help me say what I’m trying to say. It’s kind of a like a missionary who has been transferred into a new ward for the last month of their mission. She or he will likely continue to work hard, to follow all the rules, and to be a good missionary. However, for some missionaries, it would be difficult to approach their stay with a long-term mentality. This might lead to hasty “quickie” baptisms, unnecessary anxiety about results, and not spending the time necessary to form deep/quality relationships with persons that don’t directly meet their immediate needs. The same mentality, aggregated over a few more months, can beset transient members with even the best of intentions.

    Some transient members adopt a long-term mentality fairly quickly. For others, it’s an attitude that is developed through effort over time. For yet others, they come and go without ever making a long-term investment or impact. I guess I just wonder what (if anything) can be done to help everyone take the long-term view. Those that have done so in the past (even though they are now gone) have left a legacy in the ward that we hope the newcomers will replicate.

  3. Rusty says:

    Interesting thoughts Maria. As one who thought himself a semi-transient when we moved here we’ve now turned into at least a semi-permament member of the ward (it’s the perpetual 5-year plan that never shrinks). I think Amy’s point is very valid, that the western transplants are the ones who tend to do most of the heavy lifting (our ward supplies the overwhelming majority of the high council and stake leadership. Most of those will be gone within three years. Of course our youth program is virtually non-existent.

    I agree with what Tingey says if you have the attitude that he’s chastising, but I don’t think that it follows that all transplants have that attitude. Most of the ones who I associate with (as a member of our bishopric) are willing to serve and put their all into the ward. But I only have my own perspective to draw from.

  4. Michelle says:

    My first reaction to reading this was also thinking of my mission. I remember hearing someone apply a scripture from D&C 51 “wherefore let them act upon their land as for years.” This was counsel given to some Ohio saints who weren’t sure how long they would be working on their farms. The idea for missionaries was the same: act on your area as for years, rather than pining for another companion, area, etc.

    If possible, it seems like mixing leadership positions/committees/ward missionaries between both the transient and long-term members is helpful. Working together is a good way to help with this issue, because relationships are built between these two groups.

    I also think it’s a a problem if only the transients are in leadership, because the ward/branch is left with no institutional memory. Every new person comes in with a new idea about how to try to run things, but with no knowledge of what has been tried or what has worked in the past.

    One other problem I’ve noticed is that the two groups can be clannish, and not really exert the time and effort to get to know each other. I think this problem is extremely hard to work through.

    We’re now in a different boat. We’ve been in a suburban ward for about a year now. There is some in and out, but not nearly as much as city wards we’ve lived in. The problem here is that we still feel new. Relationships haven’t matured as quickly as when we were in city wards, and the ward can sometimes feel stodgy–not enough new ideas and kind of set in ways of doing things.

    Maria, can you give a specific example of policy difference between transients and long timers? I’m curious about this.

  5. bigbrownhouse says:

    In my experience as a short-termer (four years) it was the long-termers who resisted investing in relationships with us and our children. We approached the experience with enthusiasm, looking forward to meeting new friends and expecting to be heavily involved in the ward – especially me, a new SAHM with a baby, far from family and friends, with no work or school colleages to connect with. The ward seemed to be a great place to start building this new stage in life which, although temporary, was the only life we had at the moment! We went to every meeting, activity, stake activity, every ward social, every non-official social gathering we could, and expected to be viewed as fully functioning adult ward and community members.

    On the other hand, the long-termers had apparently seen too many graduate student families come and go over the years and tended to look at us a faceless group rather than individuals.

    What I find really strange is that it wasn’t until I was married with kids that this time factor seemed to matter to people, and then, it was only within the ward that it seemed to be an issue. How many students start high school or college thinking “I’ll only be here 4 years and after that I won’t see most of these people again, so why bother making friends?”

    And why was it that during our four years in the East I was able to develop close friendships with people outside the ward (even though they knew how “temporary” I was)but not in the ward?

  6. Caroline says:

    My ward struggles with the long termer/short termer divide.

    I don’t live in an inner city ward. In fact, it’s highly suburban, wealthy, white and active. But it has a university within its bounds, so we have a lot of grad students who leave within a few years. I am a long termer, but all my friends are short termers.

    It’s proved a bit divisive, I think. I’ve heard some of the elderly long-termers say that they’re not going to bother learning the short-termers’ names.

    And with the short termer/ long termer divide also comes a wealthiness divide. The short term grad students don’t have the same type of money the long termers do, so our RS has struggled in the past with having activities that cost money and then seeing very few short termers get involved.

    Maria, you ask good questions about getting everyone invested and involved. I’ve been interested to read the responses.

  7. Naismith says:

    Our ward is maybe 1/3 retirees, 1/3 permanent, and 1/3 transients.

    My heart has been broken so many times by those short-termers who have left. I did go through a bad spot some years back when I didn’t want to get to know the newcomers, in order to keep from being hurt. But when that cohort left, I felt only emptiness. So I decided that it was better to get to know the newcomers, even though having our hearts broken is the price of the joy of their friendship.

    We also have a “wealth divide” but it comes about because the law students and medical students live rather high on the hog, going on cruises and fancy vacations and their kids having designer jeans, etc. which the locals cannot afford. But the professional students are very confident in their long-term earning ability and don’t mind the debt (i think with that many zeroes anyway, it all kind of seems unreal).

    Our short-termers are not generally from the west, but from all over, including foreign countries.

  8. bigbrownhouse says:

    Must moving away equal broken hearts and ended friendships? My best friend in the world was another short-termer (one of the few people in the ward who went out of her way to make friends.) We moved away to different states after four years and still maintained a vigorous and treasured friendship. Don’t most of us in this transient society have close relationships with people in distant places?

  9. bigbrownhouse says:

    I just read that again, and my tone sounded kinda whiney. I guess the original post has sent me back into a place I haven’t really examined in a long time, and I’d sort of forgotten how much sadness and disappointment I felt back then.

  10. Maria says:

    Rusty:

    I absolutely agree that not all transients have a temporary mindset. I remember looking around at the fireside that night and wondering if he perhaps he was preaching to the choir. People with a transient mindset are not usually the ones to show up to an extra fireside on a Sunday night anyway, right? 🙂

    But his words that night really struck a chord with me and my husband–the truth is that we did a lot of soul-searching ourselves after the fireside. It’s become almost a mantra since then–everytime we’re brainstorming about a new calling, program, or whatever, we ask ourselves “What is the long-term viability of this?” or “Is this just a quick fix?” or “What can we do to help this idea really take root?”

  11. Maria says:

    Michelle:

    I really like the scripture you shared. I’ll have to do some more research on the story behind it.

    I completely agree on the need for institutional memory. It’s pretty ineffecient to keep trying to re-invent the wheel. Hmmmm…last year I started an institutional history binder for the student organization I ran in the hopes that future generations wouldn’t make the same mistakes I did. Maybe we’ll start the same thing up in the ward–ask each person who is released from their calling to write up a summary of what they tried, what worked, what didn’t work, etc. It could be kept in the clerk’s office, and new people could be assigned to read it before they begin their callings….hmmm….thanks for sparking an idea, Michelle.

  12. Maria says:

    Bigbrownhouse:

    I’m so sorry that you had such a bad experience. I know how painful it can be to be rejected, especially when you’re trying so hard to become involved. I don’t think you’re being whiney at all…I think you are asking good questions.

    I don’t think making friends with transients always leads to total heartbreak. I just think that both sides need to understand where the other is coming from. Short-termers are far away from home, family, and friends, and are longing for people to care about them, take an interest in their lives, and fill some of that void that leaves them aching when they go home to an empty apartment. But long-termers have provided that comfort for numerous short-termers in the past, and have seen a little part of their hearts ripped out each time a beloved new friend leaves. It’s painful on both ends, and we have to remember that everyone else is just trying to minimize pain as much as we are. I guess this is all part of bearing one another’s burdens, and mourning with those that mourn.

  13. Maria says:

    Caroline:

    We have the exact opposite wealth gap between short/long-termers. The long-termers tend to be poorer, and the short-termers tend to be wealthier (if not actually wealthy yet, they usually come from wealthier backgrounds). Melissa De Leon did an excellent post on BCC a short while ago about the “Culture of Poverty” that discussed the wealth gap issues very well.

  14. Maria says:

    Naismith:

    “So I decided that it was better to get to know the newcomers, even though having our hearts broken is the price of the joy of their friendship.”

    I really liked this statement. So true. I need to try harder to remember this.

  15. Naismith says:

    “Must moving away equal broken hearts and ended friendships?”

    It doesn’t mean ended friendships, but it does change the nature of one’s relationships when you aren’t going through shared experiences.

    Also, and I don’t know how to explain this exactly, but there is a loss of those folks who enriched your life, even though they weren’t close friends per se. The primary kids you taught, the YW leader who gave such good advice to your daughters, the music student who filled the chapel with amazing sound, the baby whose family sat in the pew behind, who you watched for a year get their first teeth, learn to crawl, etc.

    Those families were never close enough friends to stay in touch, but their departure is still grieved. The fabric of our ward is ripped apart and rewoven every semester, but marks and tears are sometimes left behind.

  16. VirtualM says:

    This post resonates with me – my ward is probably somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 transients (of the active members).
    Our ward depends heavily on the students (there are several universities in our boundaries) and they generally assimilate pretty well because they are here for upwards of five or six years. Most of the ward is poor (inner city + college students), so financially there is not much of a divide, although there is definitely a class divide between many of the locals and the transient transplants.
    We are approaching a problem with the summer. Many of our active families (the ones that are being bled dry with multiple callings) leave for internships, leaving many auxillaries struggling. We get a huge influx of alarms sales people during the summer, and they absolutely leave their sense of religious obligation in utah or wherever they come from, even though we desperately need their help. Most of them only attend sacrament meeting for the summer and never have their records transferred. Is there a good way to deal with transients who will only be in a ward for a few months at best?

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