Last month more than half of the Church units in Flanders were closed (Flanders is the Dutch-speaking, northern part of Belgium, with a population of 6.5 million). We shrank from 9 wards and branches to just 4. Historic cities like Bruges and Louvain lost their Mormon meeting place. It’s part of the major “contraction” of the Church in Europe, rumored to dismantle 800 of the some 1200 units. If what happened in Flanders is symptomatic for the rest, the proportion is confirmed.
These original 9 units in Flanders are part of a stake, the Antwerp Belgium Stake, that also covers a southern area of the Netherlands, with 5 units, of which only one was closed. For the whole stake, it means that of its 14 original units (9 in Flanders and 5 in the Netherlands), 8 remain (4 in Flanders and 4 in the Netherlands).
This post is not going to argue about the appropriateness of decisions made at the top. However, the historic dimension of this change deserves some reflections. Is it consolidation or contraction? What about the why and the how? What are implications and consequences? And at the end: What is painfully missing in the whole process of consolidation?
Consolidation or contraction?
The term consolidation is very Mormonspeak to express firming up what was scattered, and also bringing together under central control. It defined the centralization of Welfare projects in the 1950s. It characterized the correlation in the sixties and early seventies under priesthood authority. In 1970 Church magazines were consolidated into a unified worldwide publication. In 1976 President Kimball used the word for the reconstitution of the First Quorum of the Seventy. The term consolidation defined the incorporation of various Sunday and weekday-meetings into the three-hour block on Sundays.
Today, in the context of Church units, consolidation means to abolish smaller units and have those members attend a larger unit at a greater distance. At the same time the abolition of Church units is also contraction: in Europe it erases the Mormon presence in city after city and reduces the Church’s visibility. It is therefore also an admission of failure: all those cities that were “opened” decades ago, with dedicatory prayers, promises and prophecies, did not make it.
Let’s start with reasons that are not worded publicly. They include
- the burden on stake leadership to take care of and visit a number of smaller units (branches);
- the lack of adequate local leadership which may cause continual tensions in immature units;
- the loss of active members which reduces the branch to a handful of members;
- the lack of converts or the disproportionate ratio of inexperienced members;
- the need to reinforce another unit so it can become or remain a ward; this may imply closing a sometimes well functioning unit;
- the cost, in particular in owning or renting buildings: according to some insiders, that must be the main reason for the massive consolidation; however, we have no insights in income and expenses because the church here, as elsewhere, doesn’t make specific figures known; it may well be that small local units contribute more than enough to keep their unit open, but other costs at the area level drain the resources — such as the involvement of (expensive) law firms in West- and East-Europe in (superfluous or ill-handled?) legal matters, and the salaries of (sometimes inefficient or unnecessary?) employees.
The public reason is that consolidation strengthens the membership, provides more opportunities for growth, allows the “full program” of the Church to be implemented, and makes young people be part of a larger group and thus helps them remain active, find a partner in the Church, and raise a family.
That general reason indicates a shift in emphasis: church growth comes less from converts in scattered places, but through “the multigenerational model” in Mormon bastions. Statements by Church leaders seem to confirm that shift. Retention is very low among converts. They lack the Mormon formative childhood and mission experience. Higher retention (or somewhat higher retention) is achieved among children who grew up in dedicated Mormon families and went on missions. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated in the framework of international Mormonism: “we must have third- and fourth-generation faithful Latter-day Saint families in our leadership and membership”. Elder David A. Bednar lauded the “multigenerational families” as representative for Church strength. In A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell, Bruce C. Hafen tells how Elder Maxwell got convinced, through international statistical data, of the “key to having a multigenerational church” for retention and for children going on missions: “We seek successive generations of grandparents, parents, and children who are grounded, rooted, settled, and sealed in the holy temple.”
It explains why consolidation aims at creating more opportunities for teenagers and young single adults, children of Mormon families, to meet weekly, find a partner in the church, marry and produce the next generation. Moreover, an older Mormon generation always puts a significant amount of pressure on the younger generations to remain active. The expectations of (great)-grandparents and parents to see children baptized, advance in the priesthood, go on missions, and marry in the temple are powerful leverages to stay in the Church, even if the younger generations may lack the deep convictions of their progenitors.
How is a consolidation prepared and announced?
The directive to stake presidents to close units comes from the area presidency, no doubt initiated from the top level. To what extent statistical analyses are used to decide on the closing of specific units is unclear. It seems a general directive is given to stake presidents and it is left to them to either eagerly comply and close as many units as possible, or to fight for their maximal preservation.
From what I have seen from the recent consolidation in the Antwerp stake, the changes are technically very well prepared by a small group on stake level. Maps, new membership lists per unit, instructions, recommendations for integration of members in another unit are all laid out in detail. There is no doubt the stake leaders are genuinely concerned about the well-being of their members. They may even disagree with their superiors who pushed for the consolidation, but they obey.
I wonder if the method of closure of units in the Antwerp Belgium Stake, last month, followed a standard procedure. In our case, the abrupt implementation came with an approach that some experienced as mental coercion. Only a few men at the stake level prepared the operation for months in strict secrecy. Then on April 9 a letter from the stake presidency was read from the pulpit in all units, urging members to come next week to stake conference because “important changes” would be announced. In preparation for the event the letter asked members to read and ponder 1 Nephi 3:5–8, the passage where Nephi is commended for not murmuring and for simply obeying. So, the tone was preemptively set: no contention, only obedience, whatever would be announced. Then, on the Saturday of the stake conference itself, first each local unit leader was separately informed by a member of the stake presidency of the immediate closure of his unit. In a next meeting all other priesthood leaders (no women) were informed in the same vein, and then finally all members in the general meeting. The reasons given were only upbeat: this is the inspired Lord’s way to “build strength”, help the youth, and prepare for future growth. “Experience elsewhere has proven it works.” The stake president told the audience how he had struggled with the assignment, but in a dream received a witness of the decision. A sustaining vote was asked. Unanimous. As one source from a closed unit told me: “Our members voted in favor with their right hand and against it with their hearts. And many were crying.”
This procedure is thus set to make a drastic, surprise change, with expected contention being eluded preemptively, and thus inducing people to obedience. One former stake president from the Netherlands wrote me that such an approach is totally contrary to their national “poldercultuur” of consultation and deliberation: potential changes that affect everyone are proposed and discussed over a long period, assessed with a willingness to compromise, and then people slowly come to emerging consensus. All feel involved and respected. This stake president once had to close a unit and did so in polder-cultuur-mode: it worked much better.
Implications and consequences
Each unit is different as to number of members, levels of maturity and experience, ratio of leadership, ratio of full-member families, ratio of locals versus immigrants, language challenges, intensity of friendships, or, conversely, of tensions. The next reflections cannot cover all these variables.
One item is important to realize: we’re not talking about the local redrawing of ward and stake boundaries that goes on all the time and is part of church culture, but about “closing cities”. In Europe there is usually only one church unit per major city. Members from closed units are now requested to travel to another city for meetings. Yes, I know the rhetoric of sacrifice of long travels to attend church, but the original intention of the three-hour-block was to reduce travel time and enhance time at home. Many members in Europe use public transportation. On Sunday, public transportation is infrequent and travel time from home to a chapel in another city and back can easily amount to 3 or more hours. At the time of the announcement of the consolidation, the Antwerp stake leaders assured the members that transportation would be taken care of, even if it meant renting a bus. Already after a few weeks it became clear that such arrangements present major challenges. The stake leadership claims that they used as a main criterion of consolidation that the unit-to-go-to “will not be further away than 45 minutes”. That is probably correct for someone owning a car and who can drive directly from his home to the chapel. It does not apply to the many without a car using public transportation. Moreover, people with a car are expected to pick up other members or investigators. Members from the new central unit are also encouraged to help pick up members from former units, thus traveling twice in both directions, adding to their Sunday time. The increased traffic bothers those sensitive to the environment. There are issues with insurance by taking passengers or too many passengers. The new central location sometimes does not have adequate parking space, upsetting neighbors.
On family life
Church leaders on top and mid-level are all part of strong multigenerational Mormon families. Such a family goes to church together and usually all family members are implied in callings and tasks. But in Europe, as in many other parts of the world where converts form the bulk, we have numerous single members and part-member families. In the best case scenario, the husband or wife accepts the half-day Sunday absence of the partner. But when the absence extends to a couple of hours more, and to more travel costs, it becomes troublesome. Similar difficulties develop with parents and grand-parents who aren’t members: the consolidation abolishes or disturbs traditions of joined Sunday afternoons. In such families often a delicate balance had been achieved as to time management between church and family, but the extra requirements may lead to breaking points. None of this bothers the multigenerational Mormon family.
Positive social and emotional consequences
Strong Mormon families with children (and with a car) tend to welcome the consolidation. They may gratefully accept the closure of their unit where they may have been the only “normal” family carrying the burden of a struggling branch for years. Their children can finally go to a Primary, to Young Men and Young Women where they have peers. A lonesome young adult will be happy to join with others and build friendships. We should recognize those positive aspects of the consolidation.
All this, of course, is on condition that all people in the central unit will be sensitive to newcomers and that some will not feel their arrival as an intrusion. In certain age groups, with long social binds, expanding ties may be challenging. The whole movement thus creates learning opportunities for socialization — if thoughtfully monitored.
Negative social and emotional consequences
The negative toll can be significant. In smaller units, most are members who for decades have worked to keep their branch or ward alive, proud to have a Mormon meeting place in their own city. Suddenly it’s over. There is not only sadness for the closure as such, sometimes anger, but also feelings of guilt and depression. The responsibility for these feelings lies with higher church leaders, visiting authorities and area leaders, who for years have been pounding on these members with promises of growth, of “doubling the membership in one year”, of “second harvest”, if only the members were steadfast and doing their duties. None of those “inspired” promises were ever fulfilled, in spite of all the sacrifices of local members, thus leading to doubting the inspiration or to feeling blamed for not having done enough.
Another toll is the tearing apart of relations. Closing a unit does not mean that all members will be assigned to the same unit elsewhere. Depending on their address in a suburb or the periphery, they are assigned to units in different cities to the north, south, east, or west. For members in cultures where “friendship” has a different meaning than in the U.S. and where mutual socio-religious ties are deep-seated amidst a non-Mormon world, disrupting that relation abruptly and “commanding” to go elsewhere on Sundays is far more reaching than the dissatisfactions members often feel when ward or stake boundaries are redrawn in the U.S.
For some members the small community is ideal for their needs. That is not being considered, nor the value of pioneering with limited means in a small unit.
The emphasis on families as the core public reason for consolidation definitely entails the risk of isolating single members or singles in a part-member family, divorcees, widows and widowers. Moreover, the leadership on all levels is usually in the hands of those multigenerational families who mold the activities, lessons, and sermons to their image. Countries where the church has existed for a few decades count among their members a number of multigenerational key-families. Leaders of stakes and of the larger wards are for the most part chosen from within these families. There are many family ties from area authorities down to stake and ward leaders. Consolidation reinforces this tendency as fewer and larger units call the “best” leaders, obviously from those very families. They mostly set a tone of strong dedication and obedience. They form dynasties of “birthright members” who know each other well but who, especially among their younger generations, often seem to have little or no interest in converts, foreigners, divorcees, singles and single parents.
On the Church presence as such
Having a Mormon presence, with a meeting address, in as many cities as possible reinforces Church visibility and outward representation. Therefore consolidation to fewer units weakens the Church’s strategical position toward the country. It diminishes the chances for recognition or other legal advantages. It’s bad PR.
In cities where a unit is closed, missionary work comes to an end. Not only are the missionaries transferred out, but members who continue to live in that city and surroundings are not motivated any more to share the Gospel with others. It means hundreds of Europeans towns, many of more than 100,000 people, are off the list for the great mandate to preach the Gospel to the world.
In the case of the Antwerp Belgium stake, there is also a sensitive issue nobody dares to bring up: the stake president is from the Netherlands part of the stake. On that Netherlands side of the stake only one of the 5 units has been closed (and moreover a very tiny one kept open), while in Flanders 5 of the 9 were closed. With four units left over in Flanders, we’re back at where we were in the late 1940s, when missionary work started in Flanders. I think of people like mission president Max L. Pinegar, who in 1973 and 1974 dedicated himself to open a whole series of Flemish cities for missionary work, and of the next mission president, Larry H. Brim, who in the mid-70s led our own successful Flemish mission, independent from the Netherlands. Now, in 2017, those Flemish units were closed under the direction of a stake president from the Netherlands. Even if the closing was necessary, strategically it could have been done with more political sensitivity. Now it’s part of the historical record.
What is painfully missing in the consolidation
What is missing is a candid and thorough assessment of why the Church has not grown in those units that are now being closed. The usual explanations do not suffice — secularization, unwillingness to live a demanding religion, hedonism, immorality… These reasons are nonsense. They are excuses for failure.
All over Europe, every year, tens of thousands of people convert to religions, including Islam and Buddhism, or rededicate themselves to their childhood religion, or join evangelical churches or charismatic movements (in particular young people). Many more invest themselves in spiritual, ideological, humanitarian and social causes. People continue to yearn for meaning in their lives. Religion is resurging. Thousands of refugees from non-Christian backgrounds adopt Christianity (are we missing the boat or are we still too marginal to be considered Christian?).
One must start from the premise that in every city of a few hundreds of thousands, there must be at least one out of a hundred or one out of a few hundreds open to the Restored Gospel as message. That means multiple thousands of potential converts. But only a very tiny fraction of these people have ever heard anything of Mormonism other than a reference to polygamy in the media. Our Public Affairs, led from Frankfurt, has been an abysmal failure for decades. We must also recognize the total ineffectiveness of our missionary system in the European post-secular context, unable to draw from the “blooming alternative religiosity in Europe”.
But, wait, we have been baptizing at least enough to fill each of our units. Take one of those small units that was closed in our stake: 160 members on the records; sacrament meeting attendance around 25. So here comes the problem of retention. Frequently discussed, never solved. I do not claim to have an easy answer. But more than half a century of experience in the Church in Europe has slowly convinced me that our one-size-fits-all program-model of religious living may need reassessment if the worth of souls is our true concern. The very consolidation shows how strong this program-model dictates policy. The Church opts for the full-program-model as standard religious experience: Mormons must function with all church programs enabled, as defined by the Handbook, within correlated schedules, with identical manuals, etc. It is called “the culture of the Gospel.” Sure, it contains the Gospel, but some feel it as stringently packaged and covered by layers of institutional distractions and obligations. To what extent can simpler and diverse forms of being Mormon become acceptable? What is the essential and viable core to be a Latter-day Saint? Some analysts still cling to the idea that demanding religions, such as Mormonism, are the most successful in the world. Demanding, to them, means the full-program-model. That may have been true in the half century after Vatican II. Does the paradigm still hold?
What are your experiences with consolidation in the international context (not the limited changing of ward boundaries)? What could have been done differently, what could be done differently so as to avoid the closure of Church units?
 Dallin H. Oaks, “The Gospel Culture,” Ensign March 2012, https://www.lds.org/ensign/2012/03/the-gospel-culture?lang=eng
 General Conference Leadership Meetings, April 2015, broadcasts.lds.org
 An extensive literature analyzes the trends, e.g., Allan Heaton Anderson, To the ends of the Earth: Pentecostalism and the transformation of world Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2013); Robert Barro, Jason Hwang, and Rachel McCleary, “Religious conversion in 40 countries,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49, no. 1 (2010): 15–36; Lieven Boeve, “Religion after detraditionalization: Christian faith in a post-secular Europe,” Irish Theological Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2005): 99–122; Timothy A. Byrnes and Peter J. Katzenstein (eds.), Religion in an expanding Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2006); Andrew M. Greeley, “Religious revivals in Eastern Europe,” Society 39, no. 2 (2002): 76–77; Yves Lambert, “A turning point in religious evolution in Europe,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 19, no. 1 (2004): 29–45; Esra Özyürek, Being German, becoming Muslim: Race, religion, and conversion in the new Europe (Princeton University Press, 2014); Karin van Nieuwkerk, ”’Conversion’ to Islam and the Construction of a Pious Self,” in Lewis R. Rambo and Charles E. Farhadian (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion (New York: Routledge, 2014).
 Peter L. Berger, The desecularization of the world: Resurgent religion and world politics (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999); Scott Thomas, The global resurgence of religion and the transformation of international relations: The struggle for the soul of the twenty-first century (Springer, 2005); Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s century: resurgent religion and global politics (WW Norton & Company, 2011).
 Hubert Knoblauch, “Europe and invisible religion,” Social Compass 50, no. 3 (2003): 267–274.
Very interesting, Wilfried. If the new organization makes it hard enough to organize Sunday services, what will happen to meetings and events during the week? And might the three-hour Sunday block itself be shortened? But mostly I wonder how disheartening it is to the people involved.
Wilfried, as you know, our family happens to be living in this same stake while my husband is on sabbatical in Gent. We’ve been here for almost 10 months, so we are still very new to the area, but it makes us outsiders with some first hand experience. We live Gent. Our branch “absorbed” two other cities, including Bruges, to become a ward.
We missed the announcement. Our meetinghouse closed for renovations at the beginning of April. The first weekend was general conference. The second weekend we were to attend at another ward, and the third weekend was stake conference, where the changes were announced. It is significant to note that all three of these weekends were during the paasvakantie, the school holiday for easter, so many families, including ours, were traveling and not able to attend church in our local congregations. We were informed about the changes by other ward members, and told that we were all released from our callings (mentioned in an earlier post). Our family did not attend services in the other city during renovation, even after the holidays, because our 50 minute public transportation commute to church would have stretched to over 2 hours each way
We turned up on May 7 to a chapel that was overcrowded. Because I had family in town from the States, we didn’t stay past sacrament meeting. Last Sunday, my husband and I were in Germany, but our children attended church without us.
I have talked to several members about the change. It does feel like a top down decision, and it’s up to us to tow the line and make it work. But losing cities is painful and demoralizing. The transportation issues are huge. Gent was already spread out as a branch. My visiting teaching assignments were carefully chosen for me because I don’t have a car. I strongly believe that visiting teaching is one of the best ways that we can minister to each other, to come to know and love our fellow sisters, but accessibility matters. I wonder if visiting teaching and home teaching be in more local circles, and how that will affect integration of the units.
Some of the sisters I visit are not able to attend church on Sundays because of health problems. They might be able to attend sacrament meeting, but only if someone could drive them for just that meeting: they physically are not capable of staying for the entire block. One would very much like to come, but who can she ask to miss the last half of church to drive her home? Taking the trams (her route would require two different lines and more walking than she can do at a stretch) would exhaust her stores for the day before she even made it to church. How many vulnerable people are forced into homebound inactivity by the consolidation and greater travel times required for attendance?
I’ve also seen evidence of the tensions between the Netherlands and Flanders areas. Most of the YSA activities are in the Netherlands, even though many of those adults live in Flanders. The burden of travelling is disproportionately placed, and with that disparity comes the hurt of feeling slighted and devalued.
I will say that our primary and youth are excited at the prospect of having more kids join them, but from what we’ve seen, being so small for so long has made the kids naturally cliquish. They have gone out of their way to welcome us, for example, but there is a natural coolness towards new people that makes it hard to integrate (our language and cultural differences didn’t help much either!). Our youngest son has had an especially hard time because fewer kids his age speak English (the teens are all really good). Even with good intentions, integration is hard.
As for the preemptive tone of the announcement, I’ve had experience with that before, in Provo, Utah. Three years after we moved there, our ward boundaries were changed. The bishops were not consulted about the new boundary lines. The ward we were in was relatively small and often struggled to fill callings, while others in the stake were so large that it was difficult to administer the sacrament to everyone spilling out into the foyer, halls, and overflow rooms. So there was need for change. But the change that was handed to us ripped half of the ward council out of our little ward. It was a painful blow. At the meeting where they announced the change, we were told they had prayed about it and gotten first presidency approval and that they knew we would all be happy to support the change. I was so offended and hurt that they told me how to feel before they even told me what the changes were and had a time to ponder and think through it and come to acceptance on my own. For the first time in my life, I did not raise my hand in a sustaining vote when asked. I didn’t have the nerve to oppose: I was too shocked and hurt as I stood next to my neighbor (whose ward I had just been torn from), both of us with tears streaming down our faces. (Our ward, and that one we were take from have since been moved into a newly created stake. Apparently changes like that happen all the time in Utah, but coming from a small ward in rural Texas, I had never experienced such change before. It left me with the strong impression that, although this method seems efficient, there must be a better way.)
Mormons are good at making the best of the situation they find themselves in, in working hard with what they’ve got. So we have made good the changes. But there is no need to trample over our feelings and compel obedience. We want to serve, to work together. Don’t dictate how we must feel. That is a dangerous shortcut that has a strongly alienating effect.
I’m looking forward to going to church again on Sunday and meeting some of my new fellow congregants. I intend to be as welcoming as I can, stranger that I am in this place. But I have found that a lot of us are strangers here, converts and immigrants who are relying on each other for support and strength. I think strangers are essential to the future of the church here, even more so than the legacy families. How well we welcome and accommodate each other will determine the future of the church here.
A thoughtful, thorough post, Wilfred; for someone like myself, who has no real knowledge of or any contact with the church in this part of the world, it was highly informative. Your own opinions are clear, obviously, but that didn’t prevent you from working through the many different possibilities, considerations, and consequences at work in this decision. In this sad time for you, bravo for sharing your perspective.
I’m curious about the case of the Stake President previously making a change through a polder cultuur process. To be sure, consolidation or downsizing always has a sense of false hopes and failure. But when faced with the reality what do we do about it? One avenue is to rethink the nature and goals of programs and groups. Maybe small can work? Or do the essential work of a church in a different way? I see swings of opinion and try-outs on this score, with the big-is-better sometimes driven by leadership issues but more often by opinions about programming for youth. I don’t know what’s best for the youth and local issues like cultural insularity and transportation are so important that I wouldn’t want to generalize anyway. Except to say that the youth programming is (arguably; in my opinion) the most important consideration in consolidation discussions.
But the most interesting to me because a relatively new thought is the possibility of a polder process. What little I know suggests it might be a response to complaints I hear everywhere consolidation or division or re-lining occurs. How does/did it work? Do you think it could be generalized?
This is a very thoughtful discussion. Lots to think about, about what is the best way to address the challenges of administering the church. I appreciate this and will probably come back and re-read it. Thanks.
As far as I know, the LDS Church is the only church that assigns members to congregations by geography. (Que the “Lord’s house is a house of order” folks.) Please correct me if other churches do this. But I have heard of other churches, such as the Catholics, shutting down buildings due to changing demographics, finances, shortages of priests, etc. This has caused heartbreak for the parishioners who have lifelong connections to these churches and fellow members. Maybe there are some lessons that LDS Church leaders can learn from the Catholic experiences.
Interesting reading, Wilfried and Rachel. I am very familiar with these size units from my European mission. I don’t know what the right size unit is, my only thought was a little surprise at finally seeing someone in Europe mention obliquely the advantages of having a car :)
This seems a pretty widespread phenomena including in the US. I’d have expected our ward to have been split before now after the addition of a lot of new developments. Yet the stake hasn’t formed a new ward. I’ve been hearing similar stories across Utah.
While there is significant slowing in the number of new units, the more recent gallup data for the US shows Mormons as the same percentage wise as decades ago. (Around 2%) While the gallup data isn’t trying to get accurate Mormon numbers, unlike ARIS or Pew, the fact it is unchanged is significant. (This still reflects a slowing since the general US growth rate has slowed)
I’m also not sure I agree with Wilfried’s point about secularization. While I think many recent changes to the missionary program have been counterproductive, it seems undeniable that secularism is rising the US. Outside of ethnic religions (which offer reasons to participate beyond religious belief) Mormonism remains one of the fastest growing religions in the US with the highest retention. It’s just that religion in general is loosing it’s appeal.
I can’t speak as well to Europe, where secularism tended to have happened in the 60’s and 70’s. I’d also quibble with religion growth in Europe. Pew did some projections last year and while Islam is significantly increasing, due to immigration, Christianity is dropping quickly.
The local unit model may need some rethinking. It has become common for units that share a building to combine Primary and youth programs. In the past, priesthood quorums were not based on local units and might include far-flung men from many branches. And maybe the 21st Century will be a time for a new phase of gathering, this time with hundreds of temples as focal points. I wondered about that last month as I drove past a city where I used to live, where the church seems a bit weaker than it was 20 years ago, to another 100 miles to the northeast with a new LDS temple. From what information I can gather, there are about 40,000 Jews in Belgium, nearly all of them in Antwerp or Brussels. I found a list of 52 synagogues in Belgium, only 3 in Flanders but not in Brussels or Antwerp.
For decades, the Church has promoted Daniel’s vision. Stakes and wards will be established, and like the “stone cut without hands,” will steadily grow to fill the whole earth.
But there’s also Jeremiah’s vision, not much talked about these days, of the Lord gathering “one from a city and two from a family” to a central gathering place. Perhaps this indicates a change in how we interpret the doctrine of the gathering of Israel.
Either way, the reality on the ground would be terribly disheartening, and the top-down leadership style that the Church prefers does nothing to soothe it.
Tom, the Catholics assign members to congregations geographically, but of course don’t enforce compliance as the Mormons do.
Thanks for comments, all.
Craig, relevant remark as to meetings during the week. I don’t know how they’ll handle that. The question also pertains to seminary and institute.
Rachel, what a great contribution from your personal experience. Quite a few valuable statements. For the relation between Flanders and the Netherlands: “The burden of travelling is disproportionately placed, and with that disparity comes the hurt of feeling slighted and devalued”. Yes, historically the Flemish have always been aggrieved by neighboring countries, but they are used to be submissive. As to the way decisions are made and announced: “…although this method seems efficient, there must be a better way”. Yes, definitely.
Russell, great to hear from you and thank you for commenting. Brings back T&S memories of more than a decade ago.
Christian, about the polder-culture of preliminary involvement of all, discussion and consensus, I asked that stake president to comment. I hope he will.
Tom, you are right, I think that in most religions people can attend the congregation of their choice. Of course, when there is only one congregation in town and the next 40 or 50 miles further, there is little choice.
Frank, yes, you must recognize the situation I described, as will all missionaries who worked in Europe. As to the advantage of having a car, it’s true, but most European cities have been implementing severe restrictions on cars, because of pollution, traffic jams, and to promote healthy activity. On Sundays some cities are car-free except for special cases. Public transportation, cycling and walking are strongly encouraged (or compulsory). The consequences of the Church’s consolidation run counter to what cities encourage.
Clark, thanks for commenting and referring to the situation in the U.S. However, the deceleration of congregational growth in the U.S. is not entirely similar to the closure of cities in the European context. We’re talking here about the abrupt and massive abolition of hundreds of branches and wards.
More responses to follow.
Thanks for the detailed write up, Wilfried. “Consolidation” in this context sounds a little like “advance to the rear” (instead of “retreat”). Seeing contraction in Europe at the same time we are seeing consistent expansion in Africa is the Mormon experience with what Philip Jenkins wrote about in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (OUP, 2011). Both Christianity and Mormonism will look a lot different toward the end of the 21st century.
The immediate problem for the LDS Church is that the one-size-fits-all model doesn’t really fit that well. It doesn’t fit for some people and it doesn’t fit for some localities, regions, or cultures. The inability of the LDS Church to make any but the most superficial accommodations to local circumstances shows that it is not a global religion at all, as that term is used in the field of religion. It is a regional American church (the Mountain West) that has planted and developed thriving churches certain areas (other US regions, some parts of Central and South America, and now it seems some parts of Africa) but not other areas (Asia, South Asia, and present-day Europe in particular).
One would think that the strong institutional emphasis on productive missionary work, retention, and activity would promote institutional and doctrinal adjustments, even significant ones, that would actually promote conversion, retention, and activity. But it’s hard to argue that happens very often — the bureaucratic dedication to the one-size-doesn’t-really-fit-that-well model seems to overwhelm more pragmatic considerations. I wish there was something more positive or more hopeful to add.
Thank you Wilfried (and Rachel) for the enlightening commentary. I have no experience with the church in Europe but having grown up in a small branch in the States some of these issues felt familiar.
As a former missionary who served in the Belgium Antwerp mission married to another former missionary from the Belgium Antwerp mission with a daughter now in her third week on the ground in the Belgium/Netherlands mission, I read Wilfried’s post with some personal interest. Alas, I have no answers. I’ve seen ward and stake boundary changes in Oakland, California and Dallas, Texas, but these are relatively minor compared to the consolidation in Flanders. I offer three reflections of my own.
1. As The Other Clark suggested, perhaps we need to re-interpret Daniel’s vision. Until now, members have assumed that filling the whole earth means increasing church members. Even if it is true for parts of the world, it is not true for Europe and parts of the United States.
2. What about a Belgian stake with Flemish, French, and English-speaking units? This probably trades one set of tensions (Flemish/Dutch) for another (Flemish/Walloon), but it respects national boundaries. There should be enough tri-lingual members in Belgium who can fill critical stake leadership positions. Wards and branches would continue as before in the home language. Stake conferences would be interesting, but there could separate sessions and/or simultaneous translation.
3. The model is that a temple follows church membership. With a temple in the Netherlands and now Paris, saints in Belgium can attend the temple, but it is still across the border. Would a temple near Brussels help to offset the marginal image of Mormons in Belgium? Would it encourage growth? Would Belgian saints feel that the church is really established with a temple of their own, even if it was open only a few hours on one or two days a week?
Our prayers are with you and the other saints in Flanders.
Thanks a lot, Wilfried for this post. Actually, I had been wondering when some blogger would bring this up; it seemed as if one of the major organizational changes in the Church of the past decades went by without eliciting any comment or blog at all. But then I realized that this ‘consolidation’ or whatever euphemism the Church may use, affects mainly the International Church, not the Domestic one, which is better represented among the bloggers.
This Sunday we will have our first ward meeting in Utrecht (NL) with added membership from the now -ex-Gouda ward. Our Utrecht ward stayed out of the fray, but we are keen on hearing their voice.
As the former stake president that Wilfried was talking about, I will surely share my Dutch ‘polder-experiences’ in Church governance, but will do so in a separate blog. Meanwhile we should be trying to gather in experiences from other parts of Europe and from other continents as well, as this seems to be a historic moment in church history: what is happening now should be recorded and not just in ecclesiastical reports.
But maybe more important, the reality of the ending of institutional growth is upon us, and what are its implications?
Walter van Beek
Clark, I still needed to respond to your remark on secularization.
Secularization is usually understood as the decline of religion in society. However, several variables give it different meanings. Only decline of institutional religion measured in church attendance? Or (also) decline of creed-defined faith? Or decline of personal religiosity? But what kind of personal religiosity? Surveys on religion usually measure Church attendance, which is not the same as religiosity.
Of course, church attendance, creed-based faith in God and adherence to institutional religion have diminished in Europe, a lot in some countries, less in others. But some tend to generalize this reduction to the idea that religion is disappearing. The survey you refer to mentions:
Well, over a period of 40 years, that is less dramatic than sometimes represented. With a population of 743 million Europeans, that leaves a lot of religious people. Plus, these are projections. Surveys also confirm that belief in God remains strong, even when people are not actively engaged in a specific religion.
Also, secularism is a word that has different meanings in various languages and cultures. In Dutch and French, and I assume also elsewhere in Europe, secularism is mostly understood as a positive notion to identify the separation of church and state. We’re blessed to live in a secular state, and not in a religious one. We hail Islamic countries that constitutionally identify as secular, meaning not under Sharia law.
At the same time, the decline of traditional churches, such as the Catholic church, should be seen as opportunities: of all those who stop attending church, a substantial portion remains genuinely interested in religion. The success of books on religion, articles in magazines, lectures, debates in the media prove it, but the Mormon church seems unable to grab that momentum or become part of it. I dare to call it an abysmal failure of our European Public Affairs and a constant reminder of our ineffective missionary system.
Now having read one person’s interpretation of the events, which appear to cast aspersion on the current stake president motivations, I’m left wanting to reach out to him for his viewpoint…
John, judicious remarks on the local unit model that indeed needs rethinking. As to your remark on the number of synagogues for the 40,000 Jews in Antwerp and Brussels, there are several hundreds of synagogues in Antwerp, some large, but most small (taking into account that many Jews meet in very small congregations). Here is a list of the most important ones. Perhaps some international sites refrain from providing a public list of addresses of synagogues for safety reasons. The protection of the approx. 25,000 Jews in Antwerp (most orthodox) is one of the highest priorities of police and army. There is a synagogue close to my home in a suburb of Antwerp: there is nearly always an armored truck in front of it and a couple of heavily armed soldiers. Sad that this is needed…
The Other Clark, thank you for that remark on the different visions. Valuable. Sometimes we focus on the one that is always talked about. In that perspective of differences, the Church also has greatly shifted its rhetoric on gathering since the 19th century…
Dave B, thanks for the comments. The duality comparing “retracting Europe” and “expanding Africa” is valid for now, but one can foresee that at some time in the future Africa will face the same dynamics with too many small and struggling units, and subsequent consolidation. Same happened in Latin America after its “spectacular” growth in the fourth quarter of the 20th century, isn’t it? Also, thank you for your pointed remarks on the one-size-fits-all model: “The inability of the LDS Church to make any but the most superficial accommodations to local circumstances shows that it is not a global religion at all, as that term is used in the field of religion”.
More comments to follow…
Jim, leuk je hier te zien!
You raise a very interesting point. I think you are absolutely right to suggest the obvious: a Belgian stake with Flemish, French, and English-speaking units. No, it wouldn’t create any tension. The relation between the French- and Dutch speaking members in Belgium has always been excellent (and insiders will tell you: overall, Flemish Belgians are much much closer to French-speaking Belgians than to “Hollanders” (the Dutch in the Netherlands)). Belgians root together for their national soccer team ans tennis and athletic champions, they sing the same national hymn, love the same food (and beers), share the same national history, adore their Belgian comic heroes (Tintin, the Smurfs…), go on vacation to each other’s land part, and there is a lot of intermarriage. In all the history of Belgium there has never been a war of even the slightest armed conflict between the two groups, though political tensions ran high in the 1960s and 70s. At present, occasional tensions only play out in political circles on matters of competencies (and much less polarized compared to what we see in the US, as Belgians are masters in compromise), and the past few decades these tensions have become minor as political parties transcend the lingual divide and are represented in both country parts.
One of the great advantages of a joined stake would also be language exchanges and language homestays for children and teenagers. Parents from both sides of the lingual border are eager to have their children learn the “other country’s language” and national exchange programs are set up to that effect. But Mormon parents are often less involved because of reluctance to let their child stay with a non-Mormon family. We’ve had such inter-Mormon exchanges on occasion (I for one worked for such initiatives), but when one belongs to different stakes and different missions, contacts are difficult to establish.
Of course, I see some practical obstacles in easy lingual communication among some leaders, and challenges of translation in some meetings, but overall, the idea is worth pursuing.
To correct a possible wrong impression: the combination of Flemish and Netherlands units is not impossible and works well in most cases. But it is not ideal. I wonder how many stakes in the world cover more than one country? Perhaps parts of Switzerland?
Dave The immediate problem for the LDS Church is that the one-size-fits-all model doesn’t really fit that well. It doesn’t fit for some people and it doesn’t fit for some localities, regions, or cultures.
I think this really is the biggest challenge the Church faces. As Wilfried says later the fact the Church can’t adjust to local circumstances but needs a one size fits all suggests we’re really not as global a church as we like to tell ourselves. There are of course dangers to too much local uniqueness. The old canard of people changing sacrament to be fairly Catholic-like during WWII might be exaggerated but also has some truth to it. Particularly in the missionary program I think we need different strategies for different areas.
Wilfried However, the deceleration of congregational growth in the U.S. is not entirely similar to the closure of cities in the European context. We’re talking here about the abrupt and massive abolition of hundreds of branches and wards.
That’s a very good point. It really is far more extreme than what we’re seeing in the US. I suspect it reflects a somewhat similar strategy though. Again going back to the point we all agree upon, the particularly local challenges might not be being understood. On the other hand for all I know they do understand it. It’s hard to say. Having grown up in a relatively small branch where we had to travel a long ways for Church I can really appreciate the challenges.
Wilfried Secularization is usually understood as the decline of religion in society. However, several variables give it different meanings. Only decline of institutional religion measured in church attendance? Or (also) decline of creed-defined faith? Or decline of personal religiosity? But what kind of personal religiosity? Surveys on religion usually measure Church attendance, which does is not the same as religiosity.
Those are all good points. I guess I was thinking primarily of the rise of the Nones in the United States and similar trends in the 60’s in Europe. Making things more complex as you suggest, is that Europeans just don’t think about it the same way as Americans. So many of those self-identifying as Christian in Europe may see that identification as more of a social point rather than really believing the religious claims. I like the question Pew did last year which just asked how important religion was to your life. While the figures aren’t quite the atheist wasteland people mistakenly portray it as, it seems safe to say Europe sees religion as far less important than the US.
The Church has operated from a “centers of strength” strategy for decades now. Painful as it is, there are numerous benefits. The OP lists several. Another is being able to reallocate missionaries to those areas where they can be more successful.
Since the days of Brigham Young, the institutional Church has always responded to opposition with “consolidation.” (e.g. Brigham Young recalled saints from the outlying branches of San Bernardino, Las Vegas, Reno, and Lemhi (Salmon, ID) in response to the Utah War.
Extremely painful, yes, but it’s the predictable response.
I sincerely believe the church runs optimally at about 300 members in a unit. One thing we have struggled with is the constant splitting of wards in our area (texas) so that new stakes could be formed. It seems to me this is typically done prematurely, leaving wards struggling to run a quality youth program or primary. I am wondering if something similar happened in Europe, or was the expansion primarily geographic in nature?
I read this article with sadness. My wife joined the church in Genk in the early eighties. We watched the struggles of that small branch and an even smaller branch that existed briefly in Lommel. I’m guessing that members in that area are now expected to cross into the Netherlands to attend church.
As a missionary in Germany, I witnessed first hand the consolidation of three struggling branches into what should have been a strong ward. It made sense on paper, but asking German members to travel to another city for church did not work (whatever good intentions were expressed) and we lost the entire membership of the two closed branches except for a single family.
However, I saw the opposite at home. I live in a thinly populated area of New England. Our small (by Utah standards) ward was split into two smaller wards in the hope that having the church closer to home would spur growth. Instead the opposite happened. Both wards shrank significantly and six years later were recombined. The ward has since recovered and is back to its pre-split size, leading to fears that some overzealous leader will get a bright idea to stimulate growth…
The saints in northern New England are more likely to have a car and travelling long distances is more affordable than in Flanders. If youth activities are more likely to be worthwhile, parents who are desperate for their children to find friends among their LDS peers will be willing to make the sacrifice of time and money to support their ward. In my mind this explains the success of our consolidation. But, being familiar with the Flemish church, I’m not sure such synergies will develop.
What would be the alternative to the full program model? Are you suggesting simply have a one hour sacrament meeting, without SS, priesthood, RS, Etc?
“I wonder how many stakes in the world cover more than one country?”
The Houlton (Maine, USA) Branch is in the St John New Brunswick (Canada) Stake. The Whitehorse (Canada) Branch is in the Juneau Alaska (USA) Stake. I guess our European brothers and sisters need to follow the lead of the US of A in not getting fixated on national boundaries. ;-)
You mean the example of the USA AND Canada ;-) .
Interesting reading. There is, of course, another way to look at it: Specifically, it seems that sending all those 18th European century converts to Utah doesn’t seem like such a bright idea.
errr, should have read “all those 19th Century European converts…”
I appreciate the valuable and relevant comments on this grave topic which affects thousands of our brothers and sisters.
asdf asdf, indeed, it would be helpful to have comments from leaders involved in the latest Antwerp stake consolidation. To clarify, at no point did my post criticize those leaders. I mentioned their thorough preparation, their genuine concern for the well-being of their members, and the struggle of the stake president to come to his decision. They are welcome to comment if they feel it appropriate. Walter van Beek, former stake president involved in consolidation in the Netherlands, promised a post on his experience.
Clark, yes, the secularization analyses as they apply to Europe are very complex, not only because of the institutional/social/individual differences, but also the national/regional disparities. Europe is a patchwork of multiple countries and ethnicities. Google-scholar with “Secularization + Europe” for the past decade: it yields some excellent academic studies in the field of sociology of religion.
Wilfried: I wonder how many stakes in the world cover more than one country? Perhaps parts of Switzerland?
I am from Switzerland and all Swiss stakes cover different countries as well. Till 2007 we had 2 German branches and 1 Austrian Ward in my stake (Zurich Switzerland). In young men’s i saw that a lot of the german and austrian youth where treated badly during youth conferences (or scouht camp’s) and often stopped participating in stake activities. I think for ysa there where a lot less conflicts.
Since 2007 the stake is complete different and has 1 German Ward and 4 Branches to 4 Swiss Wards and 2 Branches. This evend out the membership betweeen the 2 countries more and made it work i think a bit better. But I was not a youth or worked with the youth duringin this time. So I can’t say for shure. There are still cultur differnces that don’t make it easy. Just after 2007 most german ysa did not attend ysa conferences in Switzerland but preffered to go to other ysa conferences other places in germany. I think that changed since now most ysa of both countries went to young men and young women with each other.
In the beginning they alwais tried to have on german in the stake presidency but recently that changed and now they are all Swiss.
I was kind of surpried that so many units (wards and branches) got closed in the Antwerp stake. Specially that all in the east of the country (Genk, Löwen and Turnhout) They are all next to each other and coverd a huge geographical area. Do they all go to Antwerp now? Could they not have been combined to have a unit that covers the east of the country?
The Other Clark, Matt W., and Joy, allow me to combine your interesting comments as they deal with the size and characteristics of an optimal “model”.
Historically, the present model of the ideal ward, or “center of strength” with all its groups and programs, is the result of a long evolution since the 1830s, most of it the consequence of individual initiatives between 1870 and 1930, that were gradually adopted by the Church and institutionalized. Basically, always more was added. In the 1970s and 80s, as the Church internationalized, correlation tried to reign in the time-consuming excesses in the U.S. in order to achieve a viable worldwide standard. But at the same time it emphasized the tradition that a good Mormon must have at least a calling, attend all meetings, and be involved in all what the Church considers as its “culture of the Gospel”. That works fine for those who happily accept this modus vivendi, either out of conviction or out of family tradition, and which sociologists call the “religious good club”. It seems that most of our active members cannot conceive of a different Mormon religious life, except perhaps reduce meeting times. In their view a ward functioning properly with 150 to 300 members remains an indispensable requirement for religious life. Hence the constant emphasis on callings, duties, reminders, reports, meetings, and statistics. Hence the sharp divide between the fully active member and the not-so-active who feels marginalized, “guiltified”, and will stay away. Note in that respect the immense discrepancy between what the missionaries tell a convert as to requirements for membership (= minimal), and then what happens to him/her once baptized. And then we wonder about retention! The point is, as I mentioned in the post: to what extent can simpler and diverse forms of being Mormon become acceptable? What is the essential and viable core to be a Latter-day Saint?
Very interesting Wilfried.
The reduction of units in my stake here in Britain occurred over a much broader timescale, and was less of a shock to members I think. We moved into the stake 10 years ago. At the time there were 7 wards and 2 branches. The first to go was the smallest of the branches – split between 3 separate stakes in a boundary realignment. Then the two wards in my city were merged. The latest was a reduction to 3 wards from 4 in the largest city in the stake, making 5 wards and 1 branch. A reduction of 1/3 in the number of units.
Some of this was dealing with changing demographics. Some wards were struggling due to aging of existing members and very few younger members in that geographical boundary. When my ward merged with the neighbouring ward the feeling was generally positive – we were in the larger of the two wards, and the alternative would have been for us to lose members to the other ward, something that had happened already with a boundary change shortly after we moved in – and we were finding it hard going as it was. There were those in the smaller ward who liked the intimacy provided in a small unit, but the change has been overwhelmingly positive for the youth.
Also wanted add, the cases I referred to didn’t involve taking the church out whole cities. That seems very, very tough.
Also to add I am not aware that any of those from the branch split between 3 stakes assigned to our ward attending beyond the first couple of weeks after the division, which has to be a loss resulting from the division, and frankly a weird way to go about it, as a group of people who had worked so closely together were not now going to see each other even at stake functions.
The larger city on our stake, now with 3 wards, has just by the stake centre a roman catholic church which has over recent years seen a massive resurgence in attendance and the building has been extended. It always seems very busy there when we go over to the stake centre, much busier than it ever appeared when I was growing up and stake centre was my ward building..
Nathan Whilk and Michel R., thank your for your attention to the issue of stakes crossing national borders. (as to your question, Michel, members from Turnhout, Leuven, and Genk were split in all directions — to units in the Netherlands, to Antwerp and to Brussels, where there are LDS chapels; units without an own LDS chapel are closed first).
At first sight, national borders should not be taken into account when drawing stake borders since the Church is unifying people above nationalities. It can also be a valuable multicultural learning experience. However, there are practical and sometimes cultural reasons why in some countries it may not be wise to create stakes crossing national borders.
– Legal regulations differ from country to country (legal recognition, real estate taxes, insurance, building safety, permits…). I have seen what havoc it can cause when leaders are not aware of differences.
– Stake conferences and other stake meetings oblige members and investigators to cross the border; while for European citizens (in good legal standing) this does not create a problem, it may be quite different for refugees, immigrants, people on temporary ID’s or without proper papers — and the Church counts quite a few of those. Worse: with the recent consolidation of the Antwerp stake, members from two Flemish cities, Genk and Turnhout, must travel and cross the border to the Netherlands for every meeting.
– Some issues cause annoying tensions. For example, in the Netherlands, members can deduct their tithing and other Church gifts. Belgian members can’t. Every year it raises questions and irritation. If the Flemish and French-speaking Belgians were together in one stake, served by their common interest, the legal aspect of deduction could be tackled jointly (but do not leave it in the hands of US attorneys and an expensive legal firm; knowledgeable locals can achieve much more if given the chance).
– We cannot ignore some cultural and national differences. The Church has come to understand this (see the trials and errors with ethnic and lingual wards in the U.S. over the past decades). Homogenous socio-cultural entities have a number of advantages. But this does not prevent wards or stakes to organize cross-national or cross-cultural activities, in particular for youth and young adults.
“Only a few men at the stake level prepared the operation for months in strict secrecy. Then on April 9 a letter from the stake presidency was read from the pulpit in all units, urging members to come next week to stake conference because “important changes” would be announced. In preparation for the event the letter asked members to read and ponder 1 Nephi 3:5–8, the passage where Nephi is commended for not murmuring and for simply obeying. So, the tone was preemptively set: no contention, only obedience, whatever would be announced. ”
This description is basically how major changes are made in the US as well. Decisions are made in secret by a handful of men solely based on MP holder distribution. People raise their hands because they’ve been conditioned, not because they actually agree.
I also remember the anger when my home branch (in central NY) was closed shortly after I left for college. Many people’s travel time was doubled and shuttling of the missionaries (since they didn’t have enough allowed miles in their car to come to church) and members with unreliable cars went from uncomfortable to impossible. The branch was split into two existing wards and a new unit was created very close to the Stake President’s (who coincidentally was in our branch) home. Many people went inactive.
I’m out of the church now, but I can relate.
Gregory, thanks for sharing your valuable experience in Germany and in New England. Yes, I have seen the same dynamics of splitting a fairly large branch (Antwerp in the 1980s) and then being obliged, years later to bring them back together. Now, with the addition of members from closed units, Antwerp is a fairly large ward. One day, someone will be inspired to suggest to split it…
You draw the attention to a major point: parents desperate to keep their children in the church are willing to spend a lot in terms of time and costs, which is a tribute to their dedication. The Church hopes to harvest the fruits thereof. The drawback may be that the Church capitalizes on that willingness for its multigenerational model, but that many other members will be left stranded. The various comments on this aspect confirm it. That, of course, is not the Church’s intention, but an almost unavoidable consequence.
Hedgehog, I value your input from Britain where, obviously, a lot of movement has taken place over the past decades. Glad to hear that at least in some cases “the change has been overwhelmingly positive for the youth”. It confirms the priorities for the Church but also the dilemma it faces: consolidate in behalf of the youth who are the future, while, no doubt reluctantly, accept the collateral damage for other profiles.
One wonders, though, if some intermediate solutions could be considered, temporary and dynamic: let a smaller unit, if functioning properly, remain where it is, in the spirit of the Gospel — “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”, and allow a family with children, and young adults if they so desire, go occasionally or frequently or always to another unit; or have families with children, or young adults, in larger wards visit and attend smaller units. That would require more freedom and more flexibility than is presently granted. The present approach of consolidation is all or nothing.
Erin, your contribution to the discussion is much appreciated, though sad to hear. The decision making process and the way announcements are made are certainly part of the problem. We look forward to Walter van Beek’s promised post on the “polder culture” approach of broad deliberation and consensus building.
What would be the alternative to the full program model?
Just a thought — In an area with an aging population with few kids and few automobiles, how about one ward in the suburbs offering the full youth and adult program in the suburbs and a number of branches in the nearby city centers offering a smaller activity program, and members have a choice? A family with kids might (a) drive with the kids to the full-activity ward; or (b) walk to the branch where there might be no other kids. A person without kids could make the same choice. Such a city center branch could still do a three-hour block on Sunday.
Wilfried, it’s one thing being good for the youth when everything is at least based in the same city. I’m not so sure it would work so well where great distances are involved. I guess you’ll be finding out. Our ward YW meet with the YW of the neighbouring (and remaining) branch once a month for activities, but it’s not far for the YW involved to come.
But I also recall when my husband and I lived elsewhere and I was teaching Institute. There was big pressure then on the part of CES to go towards bigger Institute classes, crossing stake boundaries, but the reality was that only the YSAs local to the area actually attended my Institute class, and they wouldn’t have been able to travel to the neighbouring stake centre, any more than students in neighbouring areas even within the stake were able to get to the class I was teaching. Transport was a huge issue, the vast majority of YSAs did not run a car. I did try to get my views up the line at the time, but I don’t know how far they got. CES seemed to be getting hung up on a statistical correlation between attending institute and temple marriage…
ji, thanks for the creative suggestions. Varieties of congregations and Church services (Mass) is something the Catholic church offers in many cities. You can go to the church offering the full mass, with performing artists (like the famous “Artists’ Mass” in the St Charles Borromeo’s church in Antwerp), or to any other church nearby offering shorter Masses, or the traditional one in Latin, or pick the parish where you like the priest’s sermons… Fun idea for imagining Mormon Sunday chapel varieties. Of course, works only well within the same city.
Hedgehog, interesting addition to your comments. The CES offerings are indeed another important factor in the all-program-model, sometimes competing with youth and YSA activities. A major concern in that respect is the time European students need for their regular studies if they want to achieve a diploma. Consolidation and the longer travels do not help. And then we struggle to make sure the Church is not viewed as a cult because of the irrational demands on time…
I was interested in your response to the person who suggested a shorter block. I think you are right – that asking about what “type” of mormons are acceptable is actually the bigger question here. Is the church willing or interested in making room for those whose comfortable activity level looks a bit different than the standard 3rd generation mountain west family that has 5 callings between mom and dad and attends auxiliary/youth activities all week long?
I spent many years in a very small and struggling ward in Utah. Issues our ward faced included a revolving door of members (moving in and out), high rates of inactivity, many single mothers etc. We struggled mightily to “carry on” the usual plethora of church programming. It was exhausting and a few core families bore most of the burden. We left that ward beyond burnt out. In retrospect I think our ward missed opportunities to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the ward members – mainly because we were maxed out and missing the “bigger picture”.
We moved to a very religious area in the midwest US. My friends mostly belong to the majority religion (Lutheran). Coming from my Utah background it has been interesting to observe the different levels of activity that each family has based on their personal circumstances and desires. Some are very involved in their church programs, others attend services and not much more. There is also movement between congregations based on family preference and congregation “fit”. None of this is cause for concern because no one is trying to correlate anything. People here seem to have a better church/life balance. They are definitely less judgy about those who have different levels of activity than themselves.
Reading many of the comments on this post leads me to believe that there is a great deal of local and personal variation and that the one-size fits all (based on the Mountain West model) isn’t even working well in some places in Utah. I know it didn’t in our old ward.
One of the more interesting submissions and certainly one of the more ominous.
So this consolidation is supposed to benefit the LDS youth of Europe?
How is that working out in Utah where there are so many Mormons they are already consolidated to the point of almost living on top of each other? I hear stories of Utah stakes losing 70% of the youth and of those who remain, about 30% never marry.
The problem might be more than the youth being scattered too thin. Even if the units are expanded to include larger numbers of youth, any other underlying problems are not corrected. No organizational configuration is going correct problems that strike at the very heart of our religion.
Youth need more than to just be herded together into the same corral. They need a meaningful and authentic experience with Christ at church with opportunities for genuine service and the hope of a bright future, better than what they might have outside of the faith, not worse.
The problems transcend age. Youth have less social sunk costs in the church and are more willing to cut their losses and run. Doing things that worsen these fundamental problems predictably won’t work.
I don’t think it’s an issue of sunk costs so much as an issue of socialization. Single people often have much more time than people dealing with time taking callings, plus kids, plus marital duties. I married late and the difference between life as single and married is huge. There’s very good reasons why single people have a hard time at church and socialization is the #1 reason.
Take these concerns to the Lord, and to your priesthood leaders, for sure; they are all very valid. Nowhere do we read or hear that the Latter Days will be without tribulation – did we think it would be all from the outside world? Safety lies, at it always has, in sustaining the Lord’s anointed; our part is to persevere in the simple things – regular fervent prayer, daily scripture study and meditation, keeping the Sabbath and partaking meaningfully of the Sacrament, serving others continually, keeping all the commandments the very best we can and repenting sincerely and regularly. That is quite enough to be getting on with!
Lest you think I speak from a position of smug self-satisfaction, in the middle of Mormondom, I assure you that as a senior missionary couple in southern Italy, we see plenty – PLENTY – of everything discussed here. However, everything we see and do brings us back to those essentials of personal righteousness. If we do our part, all will be well.
“It’s true isn’t it? Then what else matters?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAimzBmw1GY
Missy, you hit the nail. The essence of this thread basically deals with the individual and how to best respond to the varied needs of individuals. We know the individual is a major concern of Church leaders, but still the one-size-fits-all model remains stringent. Other churches show that a more diversified acceptance of “good standing” is what keeps people coming to church. A Catholic is accepted as practicing Catholic if he comes to Church either weekly or only once a year. Weekly is appreciated, of course, and more involvement too, but everyone remains welcome and equally respected. The “guiltification” of so-called “less active” or less involved Mormons is something our system fosters all the time. It starts quickly with converts who, suddenly overwhelmed by expectations they never heard about from missionaries, drop out. And then we start the “reactivation” process…
Mike, thanks for your concern for the youth. I don’t know how correct statistics of “inactivity” among our youth are, but it certainly is a major source of concern. It’s not new either. Church history shows various periods where the loss of youth and young adults triggered alarm and new programs. Every church faces those quandaries. Reasons are varied too. You are right that youth need more than being “herded together into the same corral”, but we cannot deny that at least bringing them together and help them finding peers is often better than leave them in solitude.
Clark, thanks for adding the nuance as to socialization. It reminds us of the complexities of individual needs. We have also examples of youngers who were just fine in a small unit, but couldn’t find acceptance and friends in a larger group.
Linda Hyde, good to hear your faithful voice. Sure we need to take concerns to the Lord … but also express them to others, make them aware they are not alone with their struggles, listen to their experiences, and learn from each other. Church history shows that the thoughtful and even critical input of members has always been a helping force in the Lord’s work. Many changes in the Church, including Primary, Sunday School, AP to young men, the three-hour-block, etc. came about through the input and initiatives from local members who started such things on their own, and to whom our concerned leaders listened. Then they in turn can take it to the Lord.
Wilfried: “The CES offerings are indeed another important factor in the all-program-model, sometimes competing with youth and YSA activities. A major concern in that respect is the time European students need for their regular studies if they want to achieve a diploma. Consolidation and the longer travels do not help. And then we struggle to make sure the Church is not viewed as a cult because of the irrational demands on time…”
A hearty amen to this one (I blogged about overscheduling at church a few years ago). I only actually taught Institute that one year; the CES rhetoric was driving me nuts, I found it impossible to buy into their interpretation of statistics and subsequent enthusiasms for the latest new strategy. That was 20 years ago. My kids did/do online seminary – there was no way I was having them do early morning. The eldest missed his seminary graduation meeting last year because it was scheduled the evening before his final A level exam at 8.30 the following morning; something we had flagged up as soon as it came to light. He didn’t want all that travel of an evening just right then. What were they doing scheduling graduation before everyone’s exams had finished? Didn’t prevent one of the former CES employees in the stake ringing us up shortly before trying to pressure us into having him to attend.
Institute does seem to work well in the largest cities here with good public transport, and a large number of students. I enjoyed it as a student in London (where it was practically on campus for me), and I gather it’s working well in Manchester where there’s now an Institute building. But it works less well where the population density of students and other YSAs is smaller and public transport insufficient. So many programs seem to assume a car culture, such as I see depicted in the US where high school students, let alone university students, run cars and drive themselves to school. But that is just not the way of things here. I’ve suggested elsewhere that perhaps the church would be best employing CES folk as chaplains on university campuses, but for the most part they seem to be moving further from the employee model. The Institute building in Manchester is staffed by a senior missionary couple…
I was also struck by your earlier comment: “let a smaller unit, if functioning properly, remain where it is, in the spirit of the Gospel — “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”, and allow a family with children, and young adults if they so desire, go occasionally or frequently or always to another unit; or have families with children, or young adults, in larger wards visit and attend smaller units. That would require more freedom and more flexibility than is presently granted.”
To some degree there are people here who attend units outside their geographical boundary, with the permission of the stake leaders involved, though not many, and it’s a leadership roulette thing. So long as they have permission they are given callings in the unit they attend. Not if not. I wonder if perhaps we’re less keen to embrace the “where two or three are gathered” model because that would also open up the whole “in which case, why does denomination matter?” can of worms. Any small group of believers in Christ can gather together on that basis (something I have a lot of sympathy with, personally)…
Thank you for this article. It certainly made me sad to read! I served in the Antwerp mission in the early 90’s. I also attended three of the four branches which were closed. I love the Flemish members and have so much respect for them. I don’t think many members and many church leaders in the US understand or appreciate the sacrifices members make in much of Europe or the struggles they face to be members.
I can attest to the challenges of Sunday travel to church in the area if you must travel some distance. When the Antwerp Mission re-opened in 1990 my companion and I were the first missionaries sent to Lommel (very interesting to hear that later, for a short time, there was a branch in Lommel.) We knew of no members in the area for miles around. We split our time attending church in Turnhout first and then Genk. To be able to attend church in Genk on Sunday morning we had to take the train late Saturday afternoon to Genk, stay overnight in the Genk missionaries apartments, attend church, then return home by train, arriving back in Lommel on Sunday evening. So unless you had a car this made attending church, as a prospective member in Lommel, very difficult at best.
I wish I had answers as how to grow the church in the area. I know it was a frustration for the members and missionaries alike. We worked hard but our efforts did not seem to be efficient nor effective. I had a few baptisms but came home with a few missionaries who did not have one baptism their whole mission. It seems we could learn from some of the other churches that have experienced growth in Europe. Out of the box thinking, ideas and leadership couldn’t hurt.
As the years have passed, I also realized that unfortunately and maybe unintentionally the church does bring with it much of an American/Utah Mormon culture that is somewhat imposed on members internationally (as a young 19 year old from Utah who had never been outside of the US, I don’t think I truly understood or appreciated this) I believe that as a church we kind of get in our own way because of this and it hinders both growth and retention. To ask someone to adopt a new religion in a country with such deep and longstanding religious traditions is asking a lot but to force upon them a culture from a different country as well is very difficult. There must be a way to increase membership while better respecting local culture.
Any thoughts on this Wilfried?
Just a comment on cross border Stakes. I am a Nederlander who currently reside in a Stake that covers three countries. This is after changes about 18 months ago. Prior to that the Stake covered four countries.
The ‘Church’ language in our Stake is English, but this is the first language for only about 25% of the membership, and for about 5% of the poplation across those countries. Some units cater to other languages. Stake conference is in English only. I currently serve at a local level. Previously at Stake level travel was a regular part of the Sabbath, including flights in and out of other countries to visit local units.
The set-up is perhaps not ideal. It does allow the support programmes of the Church to function where they otherwise could not. I see the General Conference model eventually becoming a local model in some (and perhaps many) places. Meetings will be broadcast to member homes. Conferences and even Sacrament meeting. Home teachers (organised in local groups) will ensure that partaking of the Sacrament is available on a regular (if perhaps not a weekly) basis. Sabbath school and other auxillaries and quorum meeting will be via video conferencing. Primary and youth may meet locally part of the time. Members may be expected/encouraged to gather in their actual unit location only once a month for a Sabbath day that is now the norm.
Hedgehog, that is a telling confirmation of the challenges with school studies. As a local church leader and educator I have more than once reassured families with teenagers or college students that they could confidently stay home on Sunday during prep time for exams. I know how challenging and important those exams are in Europe. But still some well meaning leaders (and even authors in the Ensign) pretend that studying for school is something not be done on the Sabbath. As to the second point, yes, it has been mentioned several times now, we may need more flexibility as to where people can attend Church, including more variation in Sunday meeting schedules.
Delux, always great to have former missionaries from the Antwerp mission visit here. Thanks for telling about your experiences. As to your question on American/Utah culture and local culture, please see my article In search of Mormon identity. Also here on Times & Seasons, I have several contributions on the topic of international culture. You may also enjoy my Mormon infosite in Dutch here.
Frecbe, how interesting, such a multi-country stake. I can imagine Luxemburg and surrounding countries, but this sounds like a much larger area if one has to fly in and out to visit local units. Also, indeed, technology could be a solution in some cases, for lonely members unable to attend church. It’s become so simple to install and monitor. Sure, the social interaction is more limited, but much better that than nothing. And if it’s a sister, and no priesthood available to bless the sacrament, let’s seek inspiration to be creative. I’m also quite sure the Sacrament is being blessed when the words come over the internet.
Wilfried and ChristianKimball
Again, a well thought through piece of writing. Big changes such as these cannot go without frustrations. If people would just accept changes without thinking about it, I am afraid we have lost the purpose of the gospel, which is to use our conscience and “faculties”, and we have become less then the sheep that the Savior was talking about. It took me some time to react to the piece about the secret Stake President in the Netherlands who closed some units using the polder model. I am currently traveling to see my ailing father. In the Netherlands we have had to deal with large lakes and swamps, as the country is part of a delta of major European rivers. In the early 15th century farmers decided to use these lakes and swamps, called polders. But building dykes and canals around these so called polders, needed supervision. In their democratic ways, “dyke counts” were appointed during elections. This system is still in place, next to the political electoral system we have. Out of this idea came the conclusion that all parties (farmers, aristocrats, politicians, engineers, and laborers) needed to work together on a plain field, and less hierarchical. The Dutch did not like hierarchy then, and do not still. The reformation after Luther’s revolt, therefore took strong foothold in the Netherlands, as the protestant movement, too, did not like the abuse of a strong hierarchical priesthood authority. Even in our LDS community, this is a sensitive issue. Members like to be involved in the decision making process. This idea was used when 2 units in the Stake had to be closed. At least a year in advance in an open meeting the members people were made aware of the pro’s and con’s of keeping the branch open or closing it. All had their say. All could come up with proposals to keep the branch open. They were given time to help fix the concerns. And when the concerns were not solved after a year or longer, there was much more support for the closing of the Branch. I, personally think this principle is what in D&C is explained as “And all things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith, for all things you shall receive by faith.”(D&C26:2; 28:13; 41:2-3; 107:71-72, 85). And I like elder Packer’s statements: “there is safety in Counsel” (See also Proverbs 15:22; 11:14; 24:6). Besides, I think elder Ballard, too, would agree, as that is what I interpret from his book “Counseling with our Councils”.
Wilfried: “As a local church leader and educator I have more than once reassured families with teenagers or college students that they could confidently stay home on Sunday during prep time for exams. I know how challenging and important those exams are in Europe. But still some well meaning leaders (and even authors in the Ensign) pretend that studying for school is something not be done on the Sabbath.”
Well… that wasn’t what my tale was intended to convey, but I do symapthise. Maybe things are tougher in Europe than I imagined, they are pretty tough here. As it happens neither I not my children studied for school on a Sunday, for us the Sabbath absolutely was protected. My view was that they needed the rest as much as anything. However what we did do was cut out all the week time stuff, leading up to and during exams – so that would be youth activities, seminary classes both online and the weekly in person class. We’d also cut any additional Sunday meetings outside the usual 3 hours, both ward and stake that might be scheduled so Sabbath rest would be a rest. This was where the seminary graduation came in, or rather didn’t in our case. The last thing our son needed nearing the end of a grueling 4 week exam schedule was to travel an hour each way, and speak as a graduate, the evening before the final exam. This year out daughter recently skipped a stake trip for the youth arranged close to the beginning of the exam period now underway – a visit to the Preston temple (not our assigned temple) and tour of the MTC. Clearly organised with no thought to those taking exams. My own experience was one of spending too much time on church callings during the week as a teen and not enough time studying, though I did get the university place I wanted I could have got much better grades. I regret that I didn’t. It’s much harder to get a good university place now than then, and really don’t want my kids to suffer.
It seems inevitable to me that, given the current demographic trends, this will eventually occur with increasing frequency on [this] the American continent.
Hans, sorry to hear about your ailing father. Arie Noot was a key figure in this Antwerp Belgium story. In 1973-74 he was district president in Antwerp and worked very closely with mission president Max L. Pinegar to open all those new Flemish cities to missionary work. I succeeded him as district president in 1974. Also, thanks for the clarification on polder-approach, the consensus-building approach in management. Walter van Beek promised a post on his experience with polder-culture in connection with consolidation.
Hedgehog, I appreciate your further information on challenges for our youth as to Church involvement versus studies. For Sabbath observance I believe the golden rule is “the principle” as mentioned in the Scriptures and then respect individual interpretation. Once people detail what is allowed and what not, or how they wouldn’t do certain things, they trigger the “guiltification” process in others. The history of the Sabbath in Mormonism shows how stricter it is being interpreted now compared to the 19th century, part of the natural process of “judaicization” of the Sabbath in Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. But, stop, I don’t want to derail this thread on a discussion of the Sabbath…
Mark N., probably true that consolidation (or contraction) will be seen more elsewhere, also in the U.S. It may be because of demographics, but also other factors, in particular the financial pressure, may play a major role. Buildings form a huge chunk of the Church budget. Consolidating means fewer buildings to own or to rent, but the drawback is the financial toll on members who must travel more. I don’t think our Antwerp stake made a calculation of the cost of the extra travel (public transportation and gas) for all these members who now have to go to other cities. That cost probably exceeds the price of renting the building they had.
I am in a European unit that has received 2 closed branches over the last 10 years or so. Wilfried, I feel sympathy for all those who are in mourning. Thanks for this very thoughtful and balanced post.
My take on these changes in my unit is that they had strong positive effects on the families with children in the closed branches and moderately positive effects on families with kids in the bigger unit that received the closed branches. Good for primary kids and youth. On the other hand, these changes were quite negative for middle aged single members and for near retirement age people in the dissolved units. There were lots of complaints about how it was handled. There were also complaints about the church giving up on those units. Serving as a bishop during the second merger showed me how much pain it caused and also showed me the hope for the future for some families.
These kind of choices are hard. I’m with you, Wilfried.
“Strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:14). It is challenging to be a faithful member of the Church, praying daily, studying the scriptures regularly, keeping the commandments and serving others. We can only hope that the efforts of good members and missionaries will bring many back to activity and others into the Church of Jesus Christ.
Our Father in Heaven’s work and glory is to bring all back to Him. All we can do in mortality is our part in this effort and pray that many will come back and others join so that the Church grows. I can say as one who served as a missionary in Belgium in the 1950s that the Church is much larger and stronger now than it was then.
merger^2, very helpful comments from your experience. It confirms the various degrees of advantages and disadvantages of consolidation — “strong positive effects on the families with children in the closed branches and moderately positive effects on families with kids in the bigger unit that received the closed branches.” Less effective or even negative for older and single members. Also the way consolidations are handled is a main part of how successful or detrimental it can be.
Philip C. Smith, we appreciate your faithful voice. Great to hear from someone who served in Belgium in the 1950s. Was that in the Dutch- or French-speaking part?
Wilfried, definitely wouldn’t disagree. And yes the whole OT sabbath thing would be a separate post. All for letting folk make their own decisions with no guilting from others. That kind of coercion is abhorrent. Thanks for the post and the conversation. I do hope things work out for you all over there in Flanders.
Maybe we should consider returning to an earlier model of missionary work in which missionaries move through a countryside preaching baptism and gathering to Zion. We could set up gathering points throughout a country, instead of just having ONE BIG gathering point (although that would be an interesting idea, too….maybe we could all gather to the wilderness of Sudan or somewhere and make the desert bloom). Anyway, the church could set up gathering points throughout a country and set up a perpetual education fund to help people move to the gathering point. Gathering points could be as small as the aforementioned 300 active souls, which sounds amazing to me as I live in a branch of 60. Converts would need to choose between their homes and relations, but not to same extent as many early converts to the church, because the gathering points would be probably be somewhere within their own country of origin. If a church member chose to move out of the a gathering point for work or otherwise, then they would be on their own to keep up the faith until a time when they could move back to Zion.
Growing up in East Kentucky we had a dependent branch of 15 in the 1970’s. Started as a Sunday School in a member’s home. Don’t know why the Church has to be all to do all?
An example of a gathering point that works beyond your wildest dreams. This one is Jewish.
About a century ago Jewish people began building this community center. Today, it has just about everything you could imagine. I considered buying a house near it and pretending to be a cultural Jew and they are more than happy to try and Judacise your children. It is nicer than the SL City Creek mall and offers anything and more than all the community centers in Salt Lake county.
Twice now I have met Jewish people moving to the area and when they learn of this center, they immediately determine to live close to it. So the area around it has become about 30% Jewish. They claim 55,000 people who are “influenced ” by it but those who use it often might be some fraction of that number. Another practice that helps with gathering but is extremely inconvenient: Jewish people have to walk to synagogue on the Shabbath which forces those who desire to be compliant to live near the meeting place and when they move, they move close to the next meeting place. (Not helpful for our approach to missionary work.)
I have no idea how the money works. It is expensive to join, but far less than tithing. I believe the LDS church has similar financial resources in spite of the false image of the rich New York Jew. I believe we have similar numbers of Mormons and Jews in the US although distributed much differently. It seems at first blush to be doable but would require decades of commitment and farsightedness scarce in a leadership partially committed to millenialism.
If we ascribe gathering places, we need to build something to draw people there; and a draw greater than the temple since it does not seem to draw that many people strong enough to compromise jobs, affordable houses, schools, or whatever else goes into the decisions of young LDS families establishing a home deep in the mission field.
First, I’d like to commend everyone for their well thought out and civil comments. It just goes to show you what I’ve become accustomed to when I’m pleasantly surprised to not see any trolls. Even if it’s an effect of a good moderator, it is still appreciated.
Ji said something that triggered my memory about a ward structure trial announced a while back. They called them “magnet wards” for (young?) single adults, in consideration of primary needs and family environment. They basically chose one family ward to be the gathering (or magnet) location for all the (Y)SA in the area/stake. They would attend the family sacrament meeting, their own separate Sunday School class, and joined again with the family ward for RS and priesthood. They would have the choice to go to whichever family and single adult midweek activities that they preferred; some, all, or of course none. Their callings may serve the family ward or the singles group, depending on their personal situation.
Does anyone know if this worked out? Or if it didn’t work out in utah, could something similar work out in ‘condensed’ areas, adjusted for the local needs? And/or combine technology in the mix. We included one of our homebound sisters with cancer in RS lessons or activities via Skype. She still had the sacrament brought to her home once a month, but got to feel like she was still part of the body of Christ; the membership of the ward, not just the church. I took my cousin to her brother’s funeral across the country via Facetime. Technology could make a big difference concerning the social needs of individuals, in feeling like part of the ward despite distance. I know there are drawbacks to these ideas; to all ideas. But at some point we need to decide if we really mean it when we say that every soul matters.
I have seen magnet wards in stakes (or multi-stake areas) for different language groups and also for the “full family” activities. For the language groups, they usually have a separate SS and interpreters for the other adult meetings. The youth and primary are usually English, here in the US. If the group gets large enough, a separate branch would be formed.
The family magnet ward is typically in Utah or other high density LDS areas where there are a high percentage of retirees/empty-nesters. Downtown SLC has some like this, with many “newly-wed or nearly dead” wards and one or more family magnet wards in the stake.
I have been in a stake that had a separate language unit, a language group in another ward plus a YSA unit. Throw in a couple other smaller, rural units with leaders coming from strong wards, and there was a constant drain on the larger wards to fill all of the stake needs. I cannot imagine trying to do all of this on the European scale where many strong members do not have cars and cannot just go support another “nearby” unit.
Mishqueen and el oso, thanks for the input on magnet wards. There are several websites devoted to LDS magnet wards (google with these words). I have no experience with them, but they seem to need a rather dense Mormon population to attract sufficient YSA or mid-singles for their meetings and activities. With thinly spread out Mormon demographics, distances between cities, and dependency on public transportation, it may not be as workable or needs further adaptation. You pointed correctly to some of those challenges, el oro. But the concept shows creative solutions can be found to meet the needs of individuals.
Holly Miller Jones and Mike, thanks for the input on gathering points. Yes, the concept of gathering points worked well and can perhaps still work well in regions with easy social and economic mobility, such as in 19th century America, and to a fair extent still in the U.S. where people seem to rather easily move and relocate to other parts of the country. This concept does not seem as feasible in countries with limited housing offer, heavy taxes on house purchases, or employment constraints, which is the case in most of Europe. But, again, creative proposals may trigger further ideas.
Wifried, having reflected upon the article, the many responses and upon my personal experiences as a member in South Africa, I have a concern that (in your article) the “bigger picture” is being under-stated.
I sincerely hope that this is not done intentionally to stimulate journalistic discussion?
My comments are intended to introduce a sliver of the “bigger-picture” and thereby restore some balance which I found lacking in your article, which I felt amplified the uncertainty and speculated upon and emphasized the potential for negative outcomes.
Change is both an inevitable catalyst to and and outcome of growth. That some see change as threatening and retrogressive is unfortunate but understandable. That some have elected to disassociate from the Church on account of change is lamentable.
“Disagreement” or variance within the Gospel plan (as the starting-point to achieving unity) is part and parcel of the process of obtaining light and knowledge. There is however the need to be reminded that there must needs be opposition in all things and that there will always be forces in opposition and those who oppose.
Opposition in itself is not evil/wrong but when directed against the established order of the Gospel and/or of the Church; as in opposing or not sustaining the decisions of those ordained to preside and lead, the possibility that such opposition has become tainted must be considered.
Notwithstanding the best/purest intentions of Peter, the Saviour responded in truth; “Get thee behind me Satan” and in doing so, delivered a sobering lesson in higher learning to the chief apostle.
The inclusion of the reference to 1Ne.3, instead of being viewed as “mental coercion”, could be regarded as a timely reminder of the need to think more deeply about the broader reality of what is going down in the consolidations and to carefully consider, in anticipation, how we/they should best (the better way) respond to those events.
Consideration of the principles in Isa 55:8 -9 in such circumstances could be of further assistance to those needing the confirmation that the changes are for a (higher) reason and that in such changes there will be new opportunities for each individual’s growth and development.
Members resorting to whining and whingeing about transport and the likely social and material impacts of such changes and supporting a view that it is “poor PR” is a reflection of shortsightedness and a lack of faith.
Our attitude needs to reflect the conviction that this IS the the Lord’s work and that He is in control?
As with Peter, whose faith enabled him to leap overboard and walk on water and then, even when his focus was diverted by the wind and waves, he nevertheless called upon the Saviour to save him, so too may the members affected by such changes resist the tendency to complain or despair, recognise the need to refocus their faith and vision and call upon the Saviour. The scripture “I believe; heal thou my unbelief” come to mind.
Wilfried, once the dust has settled, it would be interesting for you to present an article based upon the “miracles” and faith-strengthening/promoting experiences of members as a consequence of the changes That have occurred.
PS. I am a first generation member of The Church…with 2nd generation children and 3rd generation grandchildren…..
Basil, I respect your dedication and your reminder of the “bigger picture”. I agree with the principles you remind us of.
In that bigger picture, however, we would not know why the Lord first inspires leaders to open cities with prophecies and promises of growth and then, decades later, inspires a next group of leaders to close those cities. Perhaps, as you suggest, to teach the members how to cope with change and challenges? Maybe. Or, as you mention, to “recognise the need to refocus their faith and vision and call upon the Saviour”? Possible, but I am not totally convinced the Lord plays in that scenario when He first inspired leaders to open cities.
The same dynamics of opening and closing places happened in the Mormon settling of the West, with hundreds of locations that pioneers were sent to develop — and are now abandoned ghost towns. The Saints moved on. At the same time, however, pioneers reflected on the reasons of their failure, which was never intended to happen. Leaders learned from their mistakes to build more successful settlements. To admit those mistakes is a courageous step. As President Uchtdorf said, “And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes.”
In your words, “members resorting to whining and whingeing about transport and the likely social and material impacts of such changes and supporting a view that it is ‘poor PR’, is a reflection of shortsightedness and a lack of faith”. I don’t think it is appropriate to identify honest concerns and a call to do better as shortsightedness and lack of faith. Even if well-meant, such judgment adds to unnecessary feelings of guilt in people who have toiled so hard to build the Kingdom and still unanimously sustained the decision to move on.
I consider this little side-discussion closed as our commenting rules ask to not question the faithfulness of others.
Holly, I second Wilfried. Call me crazy, but I seriously doubt that you’ll get very many takers when the missionaries roll up and on the second or third discussion, tell you that by joining the Church, you’re obligating yourself to move to the other side of the country. I know it would go over like a lead balloon where I served my mission.
Now, tell someone in the Third World that he or she will need to move to the U.S. or Western Europe and you’ll have people banging down your door to be baptized (assuming the Church would sponsor emigrees). However, I don’t think that’s what the Church wants nor do I think most members in the target country would be very welcoming of masses of Third World immigrants pouring into their wards (or maybe I’m just jaded).
To be blunt, I think the Church is desperate to have first world-middle class, educated people to fill the ranks and coffers (and I don’t mean that in the skeptical sense). It sees the trend lines and concludes that missionary work isn’t going to do that job (ask yourself how many middle to upper middle class people have been baptized in your ward in the last five years – if you have any, I’ll bet $100 that they are the spouses of members). Thus, the emphasis on retaining multi-generational families. While the booming work in West Africa is encouraging, I’m increasingly not surprised that the Church isn’t sending more missionaries there as it’s not something that can take the place of First World tithe payers.
Well, I confess that my comment was tongue in cheek- however, things have changed a lot in the past and I know they’ll change a lot in the future. I think it’s fun to think outside the box. And we actually had a middle class, middle-aged couple baptized into our branch on Saturday. Friends of mine. :)
However, until this couple came along, you would have won that bet. I know what you are talking about.
I do appreciate the outside the box thought. Maybe it will come to that if we continue to not grow (I ca n just image a dystopian future where home teaching becomes a Church version of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to track down immigrant members who aren’t paying tithing or attending church – whew!). Also, please tell the new members congrats for me.
Wilfried, I’m am always impressed by the thought in your posts and especially by your continuing, positive engagement with all commenters after you post. You are a model of thoughtful and respectful discourse which sadly is lacking in so many internet discussions. I can sympathize with those who had built a lifelong home in a branch only to see it disappear. We blithely repeat aphorisms about change being good, change being what life is all about, etc, etc, but this kind of change is as much emotional as it is intellectual. The emotional toll of life changes, such as a parent passing on after a full life, can’t just be dismissed with “change is good” sound bites.
I served as a missionary for 8 months in Brugge, also for a short time in Gent, Brussels, and was the Zone Leader for Kortrijk, Leuven, and other cities closed. This was in 97-99. I’m saddened by this announcement. I was a firm believer that if we “worked and prayed, and prayed and worked” that the promises of a harvest would be fulfilled. That the blood of Israel was still in these lands and that the population would listen. I probably knocked on every single door in Brugge’s binnenstad at least once in 8 months. I baptized a family there and in other cities. This is so, so hard to know that the missionaries and active members there have worked so hard for so long only to see new converts fall away. I suppose, we nedred hope or a plan or revelation — not spin about how a train ride and a bus to church is a good thing.
Holly & Northern Virginia, enjoyed your exchanges. As to gathering places, at least it happens here at T&S. We get so used it, but it remains incredible that in no time people from all over the world, and missionaries to Belgium, from the 1950s till now, join in the conversation.
KLC, thanks! Embarrassing. Quite appropriate to compare the closing of a unit to a parent passing on —always too early. Time to mourn, to be a little angry with death, to show understanding for the challenge of change.
Kayson! Another of our missionaries who found us here. Thanks for your comment. Hmm, reunions are going to be difficult. Stay in touch with the members you know, it’ll help them cope.
Late to the conversation, all of which I read with great interest and empathy. I was raised in the mission field (Norfolk/Virginia Beach) – I remember attending stake conference in Richmond, but early on we had “our own” stake in Norfolk area. The church has continued to grow and multiply in that area which now consists of multiple stakes where there was one.
In younger married life, lived in Vermont, and attended various branches/wards where, since there was little net growth in membership, boundaries were sometimes drawn, redrawn, units split, units combined. One of those boundary “re-draws” moved our home from a ward to a branch (both equidistant in opposite directions), and my husband called to be branch president. After moving away, that branch was combined with another unit in same stake, but “across the border” in New Hampshire and has since been combined with a ward in northern Massachusetts. Having been absent from that area, not sure how it has affected member participation.
Worst experience with this was in the heart of Utah. Within our stake, got permission to create a new ward, so boundaries for about 3-4 units were redrawn. From my perspective, the boundaries were manipulated (boundaries looked very gerrymandered) to create a “superward” which included most of stake leadership and robbed our ward of some new housing (condos) that were mostly occupied by mature couples with tons of church experience, a great strength to our ward. The change in boundaries decimated our ward. Since then, the number of wards in the stake was reduced back to the former number, and boundaries adjusted. I’ll never forget a few months after the change a visiting high councilman beginning his talk in our sacrament meeting “where is everyone?” I almost walked out.
So many thoughtful comments above. I hope we see more flexibility in the future in meeting the unique needs of the saints throughout the world.
I have heard of the ward boundary gerrymandering like you describe, but have never seen it. In one ward I lived in, after we divided it, a convert who had been a life-long baptist said that this was the first time he had seen a congregation split for the right reasons.
I did live in a ward that had the boundaries redrawn to include the entire stake presidency and several other high stake officials all in the same ward. This was not the reason to do the change, in fact, the family of the stake president was unhappy being split away from many close friends. The underlying reason was to balance the youth in the wards, so that each ward had nearly equivalent numbers. My kids were younger at the time, so I am not sure of all the issues with the youth, but I think that a couple of the pretty girls in the smaller ward were getting snubbed by the other (jealous) girls their age at high school and seminary. As others have noted above, there are not tremendous numbers of upper middle class people being baptized as converts. Most in that category are young. You are much less likely to get these people interested if the LDS at high school are acting unchristian toward each other.
Hi Wilfried thank you for your courteous response. As I am unaware of the comment-rules i may have erred and apologise accordingly.
That mistakes may have been made is plausible but fortunately we have the benefit of learning from such.
My comments however were triggered by what I considered to be the article’s sharp-edge-terminology in referring, perhaps irreverently, to ordained leadership as “the top”, its emphasis of the negative elements at the expense of the opportunities and blessings adversity brings and to some degree by the use of the term “Mormons” instead of Latter-day Saint/s.
That you have elected to close the comms is your prerogative and I am OK with that in that you have afforded me the courtesy of expressing my views. However please take up my request/challenge that you publish a sequel comprising the faith-promoting experiences and growth many will experience as the result of this consolidation.
NV I trust that you are not serious?
In Africa the missionary resources and Gospel efforts are focused upon uplifting the rural people, the majority of whom live in abject poverty, relative to USA standards.
Here the Gospel principles of self-reliance and the need to become educated are being taught and practiced with inspiring success.
I pray that you will not see this initiative as another means to “fill the coffers” by wringing tithing out of previously indigent folk.
eileen369 and el oso, the topic of ward boundary gerrymandering is a delicate one, as it implies allegations of personal or other unfair interests. As long as we have a system where decisions are prepared in secrecy and imposed on people, there is a serious risk of such suspicions. In the case of our Antwerp Belgium stake, is strikes that 5 of the 9 Flemish units were closed, and only 1 out of 5 in the Netherlands. Moreover, members of 2 of the closed Flemish units now need to cross the border in order to reinforce 2 units in the Netherlands. This was all decided under the direction of a stake president from the Netherlands. Difficult to avoid uneasy feelings. It would have been so much better to use the “polder-culture” of broad information and long deliberation to reach consensus: people would have come to recognize the wisdom of the decisions or perhaps come up with alternatives which could have been better.
Basil, thanks, and yes, we will follow up on faith-promoting experiences. That’s the kind I love to tell – perhaps have a look at many of my early posts on T&S. As to the topic of tithing, affluence, poverty, etc., that should not become part of this thread. NV’s tongue-in-cheek remark was not to be taken that serious.
Christianity in general lacks the libido to grow. Mainstream Christianity was castrated long ago and in the past two generations you had Christian fundamentalists and Mormons doing well because they had a unique message. However, during the Hinckley years we tried to be more mainstream and that brought us the same results as it did the mainstreamers — lack of enthusiasm and drive. We still have time to re-capture what it is to be Mormon, rather than what we aren’t, and regain our momentum or else we will decline.
unlock…, the topic of “demanding religions” versus allegedly “relaxing” mainstreamers is an extremely important one. I broached it in my post. The paradigm that demanding religions are (allegedly) more successful may be over. Since 9/11 and the present situation with terror associated with religion, we may be experiencing a significant shift in what religion is supposed to mean. Fundamentalization and radicalization have become threatening concepts. As if our own Mormon history has not taught us to what extremism can lead. The world now pleads for religious moderation and tolerance. President Hinckley preached it conference after conference. But within our own circles the temptation of firing up people beyond reason and the expectation of excessive involvement are always there. When does it cross into extremism? For one, when we start generalizing with easy and defiant words.
I will come back to that topic in another post.
Time to close comments, thanks all.