Some of my Best Friends Are…, or Representation in our Wards

I thought it would be interesting to run some basic numbers on how many people from different groups we could expect in our wards and other associations if they were representative. There are a number of takeaways here. First, if there aren’t this many people in your ward, Elder’s Quorum, or what have you, then your Church experience is non-representative of the US and that should be acknowledged. Second, in the case of demographics that aren’t as easily visible or selective by religion these numbers give a reasonable estimate of how many of these different groups are in your wards and quorums, whether you’re aware of them or not.

I’m looking at several tiers of associations.

  • First, from cursory Googling around it looks like the average American has about four close friends. So for the “some of my best friends” line you have four shots on average.
  • Second, the median number of Facebook friends is about 200, this is close to Dunbar’s Number, which speculative evolutionary psychology suggests is the standard number of people we have the cognitive bandwidth to maintain social associations with.
  • Third, I’m assuming an average ward (again with wide variation, I might be off, I’ve never been a ward membership clerk) has about 100 consistent sacrament meeting attenders.

I’m also looking at several tiers of probabilities. Of course, in putting, say, racial or sexual minorities next to people with mental health or crime histories I’m not equating the two, rather I’m just pointing out different categories of experience that are different from the norm, and I’m not implying any equivalencies.

Within the different probabilities I’m looking at:

1 in 10: Black person, rape or attempted rape victim (obviously varies a lot by gender), felon, somebody with a drug user disorder, somebody who has had at least one major depressive episode.

1 in 50: Gay (not bisexual), Native American, person on a sex offender registry.

1 in 100: Psychopath,person who requires a wheelchair,

1 in 200:Person suffering from schizophrenia

With these probabilities, the average ward, if it’s representative of the US, will have at least one psychopath, one person in a wheelchair, two gay people, two Native Americans, two people on the sex offender registry, 10 Black people, 10 rape victims, 10 felons, 10 people with a drug use disorder, and 10 people who have had at least one major depressive episode among those who are in the pews every Sunday.

An average Facebook group/Dunbar’s number would have about twice that; so, for example, one person suffering from schizophrenia and two psychopaths among your Facebook friends. To be representative you should have about 20 Black, four Native American, two people in wheelchairs, and four gay Facebook friends. However, in terms of your “close friends,” not having any minority close friends doesn’t necessarily mean much because in 2023 our close friend groups are so small.

On one hand I’m a little dubious when people protest that many of their best friends are sexual, gender, and racial minorities, when given our relatively small circles that’s unlikely unless one is either lowering their standard for what a “close friend” is for groups that give one social cachet, or one lives in a gayberhood or something.

On the other hand, we often miss the diversity of people’s experiences around us, especially among these categories that can be quite invisible to outsiders, or we project a typical experience onto our entire ward except for maybe one or two outliers. A former bishop I spoke to a long time ago mentioned that looking out at a congregation looks very different when you’re more privy to the skeletons in everybody’s closets, and I’d imagine that a God’s eye view on our congregations would yield an even more diverse portrait.

13 comments for “Some of my Best Friends Are…, or Representation in our Wards

  1. I don’t know of any diagnosed psychopaths or schizophrenics among ward members (although other psychological issues are common) or to what extent they have been victims of crime, but all the other categories are usually represented in sacrament meeting, just based on information people have made public. There’s a lot more diversity in active members than some people think.

  2. Utah wards are so geographically small, and racially/economically not diverse, that this doesn’t match here

  3. In my experience wards (outside The Utah bubble) are pretty spot on for this… maybe even higher likelihood for some categories. (Mega higher than average on Autism Spectrum disorders)when I was a RSP if I had a nickel for every sexual abuse survivor I encountered in serving and visiting I coulda easily bought a can of soda.

  4. I’ll also be anonymous, I’m in a Wasatch front ward, my experience also leads me to believe some categories are higher although maybe it depends. I started out my stint as RS President believing that the less active members of the ward, who are about 50% of the total on record, were probably just not interested in religion or just never had a testimony, but I ended it believing that many if not most were really pushed out due to social rejection by other ward members. I believe abuse/rape victims, LGBTQ people, single adults, and people with chronic illnesses tend to be marginalized, often unintentionally. So those that remain in the pews are more likely to “look the part”. Some of them are hiding their burdens in order to fit in as well. It’s sad.

  5. @acw: That’s part of what I’m saying here. It’s very plausible you could have a 300-attender ward in Orem/Provo without a single person of color, and it’s useful for people in those situations to know what it would look like if it was more representative of the US.

  6. I’d be interested in seeing the numbers for Hispanics. I live in a town that is 65% Hispanic, but there’s only 1 Hispanic family in our ward and a very small Spanish branch. In every other aspect of our town (school, kids friends, hobbies), Hispanic town members dominate. I’ve always found it kinda sad that the ward doesn’t really fit in the town.

  7. We have a lot of racial diversity in our ward in Orem, UT. A lot of Whites, of course–but a fair number of Hispanics too. Plus a few Polynesians, Asians, and even one or two African Americans. We also have a few Whites who’ve immigrated from Europe.

    As far as the other kinds of diversity are concerned–we’ve got some of that too. I rarely attend church myself because of mental illness. But the ward sends the young men to my home to administer the sacrament to me and others in my family who suffer from similar mental limitations. Its a wonderful thing to see those bright Latino and Gringo boys working together to serve my household.

  8. Hispanics are about 20%, but the Hispanic case is a little different since they’re often apart in the Spanish speaking units.

    Jack makes a good point about Utah. People tend to chide Utah for not being diverse because it doesn’t have a lot of Black people, but in response I’ll sometimes point out that you can go for a while back East without crossing paths with a Pacific Islander. Utah has its diversity too, just different kinds. (And that’s beautiful that your ward is good about ministering to its members in all their diversity even if they can’t make it to a pew).

  9. If you want do do a much more interesting and informative study why not compare the racial and ethnic percentages of local wards with the local census records.

    Where I live in the mid south is still quite segregated in many ways but has a very high percentage of the ward boundaries with a dense black and Hispanic population. My old ward did not reflect that. Very few local wards or communities match the average for the whole country. That should be obvious to any study of demographics.

  10. Thank you not today for sharing. My experience is similar that most people stop coming in order to preserve their mental health from taking a beating every Sunday when they feel othered at church. We must do better.

    My experience is similar to RexT and Brian G. My community is diverse; my ward is not.

  11. What seems to be missing in this list is single parents, seniors, people struggling economically, suffering depression or worse people feeling they need to keep up the “image” of Mormonism while struggling with doubts about the faith.

  12. On the question of how close a friendship has to be to “count,” I think it depends on why you’re bringing it up. If you’re saying “I’m not racist–some of my best friends are black!” then they’d better be *best* friends, and you really need to lean more about racism.

    But I have found that having immigrants and LGBT people in my ward has changed how I feel about related issues. I’m not “best friends” with anyone in either group: I don’t speak Spanish, most of the active LGBT people are youth, and I’m an all-too typical male of my generation and don’t have really close friends outside my family anyway. But I care about them (that’s what we’re trained to do, right?), and when something happens, I now think “How will this affect so-and-so?” That hasn’t necessarily changed my positions, but it does change how I respond.

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