A Pitch for Living in High Needs Wards; or Why Large, Stable Wards are Boring

The socioeconomic dynamics around schools are funny things. The largely liberal social scientists I spent time around earlier in life could wax on about the evils of gentrification or white flight, but when it came to their own children they would move, slit throats, or do whatever it took to be in the catchment area for a prestigious school. And I don’t blame them. (However, for all the energy, time, and money you pay to win the “good school” game you could probably give them a killer home education—especially given all the amazing online resources available nowadays—but I digress). 

However, I sometimes see a similar process in regards to ward boundaries, with families going to great lengths to be in the more stable wards with high resources and large youth quorums for their children. I suspect that the insane real estate prices in Utah and Southern Idaho (relative to incomes) are in part because of the demand for these sorts of communities. (I’ve also been heartened to see the opposite happen, with a few hardy souls specifically asking where they could be of most help). 

However, I think big, stable wards and their purported positive influence on kids are overrated. I have experienced both extremes. One of the wards I grew up in now has over 120 youth, with multiple deacon’s quorums.  I have also been in two wards I’d label “high needs,” one in inner-city Philadelphia and my current one in suburb of DC (*not* the DC suburbs where all the members live—on the losing side of the river ;)

In the large ward, with a phalanx of dedicated scoutmasters and youth advisers we had all these artificial badges and tiers of accomplishment to reach for that seemed to substantively mean a lot because of the social weight that the rather large ward structure was exerting on them. (I felt a little cheated later on in life when I realized that nobody in the workforce actually cares if, for example, you have your Eagle).

Of course, a lot of this was aimed towards socializing us so that when we were cut loose to go into the big wide world we stayed true to our roots, but I don’t know how much marginal benefit all the additional structure provided. Like the people who got sick after isolating from Covid for months, sometimes having a little too much structure and protection can weaken natural defenses.

Some got used to being served and getting all the adult attention as the Youth of Zion, and had a jarring experience when they were the ones that had to pick people up instead of being picked up, or when they had to check in on people instead of taking it for granted that adult leaders were praying over you. 

Conversely, my son was the only deacon in his quorum when he was set apart (at his priesthood ordination he was also set apart as president of the quorum). One Sunday, besides the bishop none of the bishopric or elder’s quorum were at Church, so the bishop invited my other then-deacon quorum president son to sit with him on the stand.

Being in a high needs ward helps your children feel needed, and not in the way that is artificially constructed by adults in lower needs wards in order to provide a simulacra of the real world and its responsibilities. 

The sociocultural pressures exerted by a big ward also become something to rebel against later, and often provide a foil for ex-Mormon narratives later in life. For us, besides the family there really isn’t much Church structure-pressure for my kids to react against. They see kids drift in and out of their quorums all the time. If anything, being a member is the act of rebellion. 

By being able to juxtapose active members with the non-active member default, my kids can more clearly see the fruits of the gospel for themselves, whereas people in larger wards sometimes take them for granted, since there is little in way of a pure, nevermo comparison group.

A good stake can also provide some of the structure that a ward can’t provide because of economies of scale. For example, my oldest just went to his first dance, where I know I’m not the only Latter-day Saint parent hoping that his newfound adolescent interests can get leveraged in the right, and not wrong, way. 

High needs wards do have more demands (obviously). However, because it’s tacitly understood that the demand for Church labor significantly outstrips the supply, people seem more understanding about people’s personal bandwidths. I remember my Philadelphia bishop having a “we don’t help people move in” policy; they needed to save that moving capital for when sister so and so was evicted by her unscrupulous landlord and had to clear out in 24 hours. (As a sidebar, if you are in a low needs ward, do not use your experience as a benchmark against which to compare success in the adjoining high needs ward). 

Saying no to callings in a high demand ward makes more sense than rearranging your living situation to live in a low needs ward. However, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to contribute to such wards; even a consistent presence at a pew or in a class can be quite significant, even if you can’t say yes to every ride request. 

9 comments for “A Pitch for Living in High Needs Wards; or Why Large, Stable Wards are Boring

  1. Looking back at all the wards in my life (and there were lots) the so called “perfect” ward for me was the one that had no super rich and most families were hard working teachers, cops, laborers, and middle managers. Another benefit was that we also had extreme poverty in this ward so the middle class were grateful for what they had and were kind to the poor. The youth group had no clicks and they were all accepted and treated the same. I was fortunate to raise my kids in this ward and be Bishop in this ward. I have never experienced anything like it before or sense. The ward was also very accepting of others as they were, no judgments. Nobody was trying to outdo another or felt/acted more righteous than others. Sure we had about all the other issues wards have, but the members loved and accepted each other regardless of the issues and trials. The ward has been this way for at least the last 15 years and it is still this way today. My son and his family bought the house I raised him in. I am now in a “rich” ward and wow what a difference. Been here 5 years and I still miss the “perfect” ward. I do not live in Utah by the way. I was not a fan of my wards when I lived there.

  2. I live in a high needs ward currently. It can be so hard! There’s so much to do and lots of things fall through the cracks. It’s difficult to realize that we are the only one to pick up a member to take them to the temple, the same night one of our kids get sick or has an afterschool activity . But, our youth are needed (they conduct, primary children speak every other week in sacrament, and they help accompany on the piano) and I am learning to more fully rely on the lord to expand my abilities and to know where I should focus my efforts. That being said, we lived in a ward that was fully staffed and thriving and it was difficult too for different reasons and beautiful as well. Ultimately, it’s possible to find Zion (or create Zion) wherever we are. In fact, I am guessing that’s probably the point. I appreciate this post though-as it is hard to remember the blessings of a high needs ward when I am running around the church looking for a sub for a primary class so that I can go back to teach the music in primary. Blessings come with sacrifice.

  3. @Rec911: One of the two wards I grew up, while super stable and staffed, had a strong blue-collar component, and the education I got from being in the same youth quorums with their kids was worth more than any college class I took.

    @Amanda: The title to the OP was meant to abruptly turn the conventional narrative on its head, but you’re absolutely right. The staffed wards have issues and beautiful things about them as well, but their issues usually aren’t the ones that can be solved with more manpower/womanpower.

  4. This speaks to me. I grew up in Richmond, VA and currently live in eastern North Carolina. I’m serving in a bishopric and we are constantly faced with the short supply of people who are willing and able. There aren’t a ton of youth either, but we get to know all of them really well and they have ample opportunities to serve. It’s a blessing in many ways, even if it can be frustrating at times.

    As a side note, I was never asked about my Eagle Scout award until I interviewed for a job in eastern NC. Apparently demographics here put more weight on it and I was asked if I could recite the scout law. Thankfully I remembered it. I think it might be the only time anyone cares about the award, but it was funny to me that it actually came up.


  5. I agree. I used to do some translation for the Latino ward and it was the best. One of my best friends is bishop of a deaf ward in the DC area and it seems like one of the best places to be.

    Granted I left the church, so my ward is literally my neighborhood I guess. We live in a suburb of St Louis and I think the same is true of neighborhoods. Sometimes I think we should have lived closer to downtown, but I hate the commute. So it isn’t super high needs but some of these same principles apply as we find places in our community to serve.

  6. My father was for a time district council advisor for a mission branch in Philadelphia. I was on my mission for most of that time, and I could relate to his experience – the one ward I was in typically had eighty in sacrament meeting, and most of the branches were lucky to get half that turnout.

    Nashville during that time got a “wrong side of the freeway” branch. I remarked to my parents not long after I got off my mission, that our old neighborhood was in that branch now. My father retorted that that was a good reason _not_ to live in that area, because the branch didn’t have all the opportunities of a solid ward. (That branch is now the Green Hills Ward, and while it goes farther out now, it still goes way downtown.) My response was, “I don’t want ‘Wherever LDS books are sold.'” (This was in 1994.)

    My stake recently realigned the three wards that meet at the stake center into two. They’ll have decent attendance now, but I hope they take it as a cue to roll up their sleeves and reach out to those who traditionally don’t come out. Meanwhile, the stake is also experimenting with an inner-city group. If it becomes a branch, we’ll probably be included because of the need for priesthood. My wife especially might be relieved that we wouldn’t be part of a ward where two-thirds of the active families are led by lawyers anymore. (At least a couple of the lawyers would be in the branch – one is leading the group now.)

  7. I see a drastic change in all wards in the future. With the younger members leaving the faith at a high rate, church history issues that are coming to members not even looking for it via members own family, friends and current/past leaders who have left, LGBT issues/beliefs, cancel culture, COVID that probably reduced the #’s by at least 25% and on and on. Wards/Stakes will be consolidated, buildings will occupy 1 ward, and programs will be cut due to lack of members to serve. May not be in the next 5 years, but I think my lifetime for sure. We are still at the tip of the issue and it is spreading fast. There are probably another 25% of members that go every week but do not believe. The rest better figure out what revelation is because it is go time! Just had lunch with a friend with 6 kids and ALL if his kids are out. Another friend of mine left and eventually took all of his family with him. (wife and 5 kids) All of us will be affected by this in some way. I sound a bit doomsday here but I think religion and the bible will be the next big social cancel project. If people have a problem with the way our ancestors lived in the past, they will find the same “issue” with what religions have done in the past for the same reasons. God bless us all!

  8. We just moved from a wealthy stake in Metro Atlanta to a small branch in TN. It is invigorating and delightful!

Comments are closed.