The secret to having a Strong Ward isn’t more activities, it is building strong connections between members.
In my day job I work for a company called Infusionsoft. We provide sales and marketing automation software for small business. One of the themes our CEO has been talking about is the idea of connections. It used to be that businesses would create a huge mailing list and then blast a newsletter out to everyone. A large percentage would buy. That doesn’t really work as well in business anymore. It also doesn’t work as well in the Church. You can’t have a bunch of ward activities and expect that to be enough build a strong ward.
Why We Need Connections to Build a Strong Ward
There is a reason we do not retire like monks to a Monastery and read scriptures by candlelight the rest of our lives. It isn’t enough to know the word of God. We need to do it too.
I Am a Child of God was written with the original text, “Teach me all that I must know / To live with Him some day”. Then Apostle, Spencer W. Kimball requested a small change the text; “Teach me all that I must do / To live with Him someday”. (emphasis added) Kimball later explained, “To know isn’t enough. The devils know and tremble; the devils know everything. We have to do something.”
The local congregation is the perfect place for us to practice the things we need to do to return to our Father in Heaven. Former member of the Young Women General Presidency, Virginia H. Pearce shared three main purposes of the ward during her October 1992 General Conference Talk. A strong ward serves to provide a sense of belonging, to provide the reassurance of listening ears, and to provide encouragement when we are overcome by difficult circumstances. These are not provided from activities are even from the pulpit. They come from connections between ward members.
There are Two Types of Catalysts That Can Create Connections
There are reactive connections that are brought on by being placed in similar circumstances. The connection is created when you serve together in calling or have an assignment to look after someone. Just because it is assigned doesn’t mean that it can’t be powerful. Some are placed in a situation to make a connection, but never react to it. These individuals merely show up the last day of the month to check in on a family they Home Teach, if they check in at all.
Even if the Bishop or Quorum/Relief Society President put you together, you can create a connection to change a life. Elders Quorum Presidents cheered during the October 2016 General Conference when Elder Jeffrey R. Holland told the story of “John Manning, home teacher extraordinaire“. He created a connection with Troy Russell, whom he was assigned to home teach, as he helped him grieve through the loss of his son. It was in an assigned relationship, but this created the catalyst that allowed him to react to the need of this Brother.
The other is type of connection I would guess is more rare. It is the proactive connection. It is created when we go out of our way to make connections with others. Sometimes we do this because we need friends. Other times, we simply desire to be a friend to someone in need. Typically, no matter what intentions, both needs are served.
Taking a Reactive Approach to Building a Strong Ward
Look back to those people you have strong connection with in your ward. I would say it’s pretty likely that you both served together at some point in your history. Maybe you served in the Primary Presidency together or you two could have been Home Teaching companions. There was something that brought you together. When I think about my own connections in my ward, those whom I am closest to are the men I have served with in the Youth.
When I go to ward activities or stake meetings, those are the people I want to talk to. I have a connection with them. We shared similar experiences. We spent a week together at Scout Camp, we languished together over reaching that one difficult Deacon, we bore testimony together in Sunday classes.
I saw this in a past ward when I was in an Elders Quorum Presidency. As a Presidency we met every week. We would talk about needs in the Ward and how to solve them together. Then we would go out and serve those affected side by side. If you served a mission, you probably saw a similar thing. The missionaries you served with will be connected to you forever. Unless you’re in Utah that connection might only be via social media, but you feel it every time they post news to Facebook or comment on something you shared.
If you are in a position where you issue callings and assignments, prayerfully consider how a change will allow an individual create a connection. Either by who they serve, or who they serve with. Culturally we often assign new, returning, or struggling to teach a primary class. I guess I get it. If you want them to feel needed we have to give them a job to do. They are just kids so it doesn’t matter if that member does a bad job. The lessons taught are soft so they can easily teach with their limited understanding of Gospel principles.
Any Primary President will tell you that throwing a new member or returning member into a a Primary Teacher calling is a mistake. The fledgling member begins to check out and attend less often. They struggle because the only connection they get at church is with 7 year olds. I actually loved serving in Primary, but for someone who has a testimony that is just starting to spout, this won’t help. (Of course if the Spirit truly inspires you to do so, that line of thinking is irrelevant)
On the opposite side, you might be someone who is currently in a calling or assignment. Find out what you can do to create connections with those you are assigned to. Use the next section as a guide.
Taking a Proactive Approach to Building a Strong Ward
It can be easy to be friends with the person who is always with you. The more difficult is to go out and find someone outside of your circle of influence. It takes a real sense of awareness and empathy for others. If you are watchful though, the Lord will put people into your path.
I have seen some ignore this opportunity. My friend Carol went to a ward activity. She was new to her ward and wanted desperately to make new friends. She wasn’t invites to sit with anyone, but was bold enough to join a nearly full table of Relief Society sisters. There she was at a table of established friends. No attempt at connection was made with her. She was merely a bystander; hearing stories of people she didn’t know as they made plans for activities she wasn’t invited to.
This isn’t extreme, it happens to all of us and it has happened by all of us. (I actually did it to my wife Kristie before we knew each other) The effort to create true connection occurs outside the meetinghouse walls. Once that introduction is made with someone new, we need to take steps to bring them into our life and they will reciprocate by letting us into theirs.
In California we had a very strong ward. The missionaries invited Mario to come to church one Sunday. They were so excited that Mario was coming that they told him to wear whatever, as long as he showed up. Mario came in a polo and shorts. Though Mario was a little embarrassed by his casual attire, it was actually perfect because we instantly knew he was a visitor. While we were friendly, it was Ed who made the connection. He learned that Mario was homeless and invited him into his home for dinner. He also helped Mario get dress clothes that made him feel more comfortable at church. That is how a connection is made. (Mario actually has an amazing conversion story being made into a book. We are making plans to have him on the Podcast)
If you are that new person, don’t wait for others to make a connection with you, go and make a connection with them. When Kristie came into our new ward, she created connections by planning parties. Every year she throws a Galentine’s Day Party. She invited friends who have moved here from California, friends from the old ward, and friends from the new. She doesn’t feel the need to break off relationships simply because she is released from a calling, new visiting teaching assignments are made, or ward boundaries are realigned. That is a sign of a true connection
What We Need to Do to Create a Strong Ward
In our congregations we need to create connections. Whether that happens through the callings and assignments we have or coordinating through ward council; work with the ward to empower members to create opportunities to create connections. As a result we get a stronger ward. When that happens it allows the Spirit to touch more hearts, to help people to change, and help people have more joy in their service as they help to lift others. You will create a sense of Zion in your congregation, and that is how you create a strong ward.