Exponent II Classics: Ward Transit

This is my favorite time of year in a transient ward. We’ve been through the fall and holidays together. People feel comfortable with each other, and while they may be making plans for schooling, a new job, or a new house, they haven’t announced that they’re leaving yet.

I’ve spent time, now, as both the person who leaves and the person who stays behind. I don’t think either position is much fun. But, as I hosted a shower this weekend for a friend who moved away at Christmas, I realized I have to learn how to balance giving myself to new friendships that will most likely be transient and not feeling hurt when those friends leave. I don’t know how to do it, but it makes me all the more grateful for women who knew I was probably leaving and gave me their friendship anyway.

Ann Gardner Stone, a regular X2 contributor, sums up my feelings more eloquently than I could. She passed away a couple years ago, and I miss her, too.

Ward Transit
by Ann Gardner Stone
Vol. 26, No. 3 (Spring 2003)
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.


EmilyCC lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She currently serves as a stake Just Serve specialists, and she recently returned to school to become a nurse. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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  1. Heather O. says:

    What a great post. I have been on both sides–the one who was transient, just passing through, and now the one who is saying goodbye every year to new friends. I’ve just said goodbye to the first crop, and it was hard. What she said about the newcomers bonding is absolutely true, but they need that clique, too. So the ward inevitably splinters, just a little. I am now deliberately seeking out the more permanent members of our ward, people who will be here at least as long as we will be, so my family doesn’t have to experience the heart wrenching experience of watching friends pull out—again. It’s selfish, I know, and like she said, there are scads of wonderful friends to be made. But inevitably those friends become email, Christmas card, and blogging buddies, and it becomes harder to keep them in your lives. Tough stuff.

  2. Ana says:

    This is so timely –

    In our fifteen years of marriage, we have attended nine wards – one of them two different times. But we’ve been in our current ward almost 5 years – it’s our Ph.D. ward. It’s going to break our hearts to leave, but leave we almost certainly will, maybe even this summer. When we came we had a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old. If we leave this summer we leave with older kids, more kids, and many more friends for all of them and for us.

    I hope I get to settle down and become an old-timer somewhere.

  3. Marie says:

    In Sunday School last week when the person conducting asked if there were any visitors an older couple introduced themselves as new to the ward and everyone cheered enthusiastically. Why? Because our ward has always been transient but lately it has been vaporizing. I counted sixty five people in sacrament meeting last week, including babies. The transient nature of the ward makes me sad. When one of my friends was about to move she asked if I had already found a friend to replace her. I laughed and told her the names of the six women who had preceded her in the last few years. Even though I know they are all going to leave (as will I in a couple of years) it is still fun to get to know these talented fascinating women – if only for a little while.

  4. FoxyJ says:

    We’ve always lived in transient wards since my marriage, but this one is by the worst. Our bishop has only lived here about 5 years and he said the other day that he estimates only about 20 percent of the people were here then. A lot of the ward members live in student housing, and we’re right in the middle of a city where young families really can’t afford to live. Plus our ward is the designated youth ward for the stake; we have the only youth programs and once your kids turn twelve you start attending our ward. I can see how that works for the youth, but it does make it hard. Oh, and we have a big regional children’s hospital here so sometimes we get families that stay for a few months at a time. Tough. I don’t envy our Relief Society president at all.

    While we do have a big, crazy, constantly-changing ward, there are many things I love about it. People are generous and caring. Everyone has been really friendly, although it does take a while to really settle in. We’re leaving in a few months to move on for more schooling and I feel like we just got here! (It’s been about a year and a half). Hopefully our next stop will be somewhere more permanent for us.

  5. Zenaida says:

    I guess being single makes me expect to be transient. I definitely have not settled down to one area, and I don’t plan to in the near future. I have grown accustomed to making new friends in new places. I have made some dear friends that I still keep in touch with and feel like we’ve become family.

    I try to make wherever I am feel like home. I still have a great fascination with meeting new people and seeing how they live their lives. I’ve found great value in a wide diversity of people with whom I might never have associated with if I had not moved around so much.

    Granted I never see many of the ward folk again, but I usually end up with one or two close friends I somehow manage to keep.

  6. NG says:

    This could be written about my ward where someone who’s been here 2 years is an “old-timer” and people start off their final testimony before they move by saying “I feel like Lehi’s family, wandering in the wilderness. I’m just so glad to be going back home to the promised land now.” Sometimes it’s downright insulting to those of us who choose to make a life here. The problems are unique, but the truth is I love it here. The diversity, opportunity, camaraderie, and tolerance for others who have different beliefs are all things I never experienced until I moved to my East Coast transient ward. Sure there are things about Western wards that I’d love to transplant into mine, but until then I’ll just have to focus on the positives.

  7. Sarah says:

    I can really relate to this post. First, it made me miss Chicago. We spent the first two years of our marriage in Hyde Park. I miss the cold winters, it was really nice in that my husband and I had nothing else to do other than study and be together.

    Second, we’re on the East Coast now and in a ward that turns over 50% of its membership each year. We’ve been in the ward 6 years, so we’re very much the old-timers. About three years ago, I actively stopped trying to befriend the newcomers. If someone reaches out, I’ll be a friend, but it is just too painful for an introvert like me to make friends and then have them leave disappear one after another. I feel bad about my attitude, but it has forced me to make my strongest friendships outside of the church. A very healthy thing for me, IMO.

  8. Kiri Close says:

    It’s crazy to many, but honestly, most of the time I don’t care about others who are staying or moving. Sounds crass, but it’s the truth, and I think it’s mainly because I’m either: A) selfish or B) too excited about new people, whether I stay or go.

    I’m weird like that.

  9. Kiri Close says:

    PS–May I add that I keep close friends fondly in my heart and mind, and while I miss them when we part, I no longer process great sadness that turns into a pain of loss.

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