Creating a Community of Belonging – It Matters at Church

‘There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us’ these lyrics from the West Side Story song “Somewhere” kept floating through my mind while writing this post, the second in a series about teaching. While this song is not about church, it does speak about the need for people to have a place where they can be themselves while still belonging to a community. 

Creating community, a place of belonging, is a critical component of an effective learning environment. The more I talk with people about church, the more I suspect that a sense of belonging together while also being ourselves and not hiding parts of what we think, feel, or believe, is something most people want but do not have at church. 

Before diving into how to create belonging, connection, and community at church, a couple of items to note:

  • If you teach a class at church and really want a post about material for your lesson, the Exponent II has a wealth of resources for current and past lessons. To find those, click on the ‘Lessons’ tab on the top of the page or click here.  The focus of this series, starting with a post about power and this post about belonging, are intended to create a framework for a learning environment. 
  • I decided to write about  teaching because that is what I do professionally and because that second hour of church in classes is half of the time of Sunday church meetings. Our experiences in church classes have the potential to significantly impact us for better or worse.

What Belonging Is and Is Not 

Belonging is different than fitting in. In Braving the Wilderness, research professor Brene Brown shares experiences about conducting research on belonging versus fitting in. Not surprisingly, she found that 8th-grade students were adept at identifying the difference.  This age group is keenly aware of trying to find a place of belonging. Fitting in means you are like everyone else. Belonging means you get to be yourself. 

A couple of personal examples illustrate the difference in a church setting. Recently at church an older woman complimented my outfit – dolman sleeve black t-shirt, wide leg black pants, hair pulled back with statement earrings. Her compliment helped me feel I belong at church because I can wear pants without seeing looks of horror on other people’s faces. Contrast this experience with my husband’s experience in one ward where Elder’s Quorum classes often turned into sports conversations about two nearby rival universities – neither of which he had attended. He didn’t feel like he belonged at all because he couldn’t join in the conversation.

Building Community Takes Intention

How do we build community in church classes? This is a topic studied by researchers in different fields. I am grateful for researchers because they do the work of providing evidence based practices for teachers like me to implement. Here are practices that I have learned about and incorporated into my teaching practice: 

Learn Names. Could I name everyone in Relief Society or Sunday School. Nope, not even close enough to attempt it. I once attended a ward for a decade and had no idea of the names of most of the women in Relief Society, not to mention all the people in Sunday School, because I was only in those classes once every couple years before getting shunted back to Primary.  Never assume that everyone knows everyone else’s names. If you have been asked to teach a Primary or youth class, when you first join the class is a good time to have everyone say their names out loud over several weeks until you are sure everyone knows everyone else’s name. In a larger adult class, it could be useful to take a few minutes every couple months to have everyone quickly say their names at the beginning of class. Or, as my ward started doing after a recent ward boundary reorganization, placed name tags on a table outside the Relief Society door. Names are important. 

Start Class with Check-ins. Check-ins are an opportunity for connection at a personal level. Here are three examples of different types of check-ins in different learning environments from a check-in I used while teaching primary, to my experience in my graduate teaching program, to what I do as a teacher today. 

In Primary, I noticed that the kids in my class loved to talk! Go figure. I decided to give them an opportunity to talk. At the beginning of each class, each child (kid) in the class had one minute to share whatever they wanted to share. I learned about pets, experiences at school, Sunday dinner at grandma’s house. The time limit kept the more chatty kids from dominating the conversation and gave more reserved kids all the time they wanted to use. It worked quite well because hearing each other share and having an opportunity to be heard by peers established connection. Their need for connection met, the kids were then able to give attention to the discussion or activity. 

In my graduate teaching program, one of my favorite professors started each class by giving everyone an opportunity to share a ‘high and low’ from the past week. The class was small with about a dozen of us and was a once a week three hour class. Highs and lows could be as personal or vulnerable as people chose. 

An example of ‘high and low’ for me at a lower level of vulnerability: 

  • High – Where I live it’s peach season! The most wonderful time of the year. I bought juicy sweet peaches at a famer’s market stand this week.
  • Low – My foot is in a boot due to a stress fracture and the boot is hot and sweaty. Yuck.

An example of ‘high and low’ for me at an increased level of vulnerability:

  • High – I get to write a post for the Exponent II! I love doing this even though each post takes a few hours. I cherish my connections with the group of permabloggers. I had an experience at our blogger retreat this spring that was sacred and healing. 
  • Low – Lately I struggle the most I ever have with going to church. People are friendly yet the experience as a whole feels heavy on religion and patriarchy and light on spirituality. I miss the days when my ward first resumed in-person in after covid shutdown and we had the sacrament at the end of sacrament meeting. It felt like the meeting was a shared experience in preparation for an important event instead of the sacrament being something to get done and out of the way before speakers. 

A high/low style check-in may be challenging in a larger class like adult Sunday School, Relief Society or Elders’ Quorum. It is definitely possible in smaller classes and even meetings like ward council. In larger classes, a teacher could still choose to give a few people an opportunity to share. There is a risk that only chatty people will dominate the conversation. An alternative is to ask people to turn to the person next them and share with each other. Yet another option would be a group check-in such as asking a question that people respond to with a thumbs-up, thumbs-sideways, or thumbs-down. Questions could include ‘How was your week?’ ‘How is your energy level today?’ ‘How are you feeling about today’s topic?’ These are a few of many options for check-ins. Try one and see what happens. I’d love to hear feedback about experiences. 

Rituals. How do you start and end the class? Over the past few years, I have come to understand the power of ritual to connection, heal, and energize. At school, each class starts the day with a morning meeting sitting around a rug. We light a candle, have one person guide movement or stretches, have a connection question where each person takes a turn to share their thoughts, announcements, and a chime to end the circle and blow out the candle. It is a calming way to begin the day. 

Inclusive language. Saying humankind instead of mankind, ‘Heavenly Parents’ instead of only ‘Heavenly Father’ makes a difference. Gender inclusive language is a tender point for me. If you are tempted to dismiss the need for inclusive language, please first remember that we are called to be compassionate to each other. Also consider reading a gender swap. Amy McPhie Allbests’s “Dear Mormon Man, tell me what you would do” remains one of the best gender swaps I have read. Also consider that if all are alike unto God and there is a place for each of us a church, then using inclusive language helps achieve unity and belonging. The American Psychological Association created guidelines for inclusive language including guidance for how to avoid microaggressions in conversation. Scroll down to see charts of terms to avoid and terms to use.

Small groups. One summer a neighbor invited to participate in her church’s weekly women’s study group. I liked my neighbor so I said yes. The participants were divided into groups of 8-10. Every week for six or seven weeks, we met in these small groups. It was enjoyable getting to know other people. Often on a Sunday I don’t need a class about a conference talk; I do need connection and conversation with other people. Be willing to ditch the typical lesson and do something different. 

A final observation – I have noticed that the more I know myself and am comfortable with who I am, the more I am able to make space for other people to belong and be who they are.  It can be hard and, at the same time, I have learned that it is essential for me to be founded in who I am and grounded in my connection to the Divine. Doing this opens up connections and community in ways I can’t explain. 

What are your thoughts and experiences about community and belonging at church?

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6 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    Nailed it, once again. Great job.!

  2. Beth Somerton Young says:

    “…I don’t need a class about a conference talk, I need connection and conversation…” Absolutely. I find it condescending and annoying to only have classes about conference talks. Talks which are too often lame, even boring. And in doing so, we ignore headline news of church and world events which directly affects us. We can and must do better.

  3. A Poor Wayfaring Stranger says:

    This! Thank you for so eloquently for expressing my own feelings.

  4. Katie Ludlow Rich says:

    Excellent ideas!

  5. I hadn’t really considered the difference between fitting in and belonging before. Thanks for pointing it out.

  6. Heather says:

    Thank you!! And yes to the peaches. O Henry & Lemon Elberta are my favorite.

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