Today our stake made some significant boundary adjustments to reduce the sizes of four wards and create a new ward. As the first significant ward split I’ve encountered since my youth, I thought I would share my thoughts and experience from my perspective as a bishop.
* If you were in the meeting by chance, many of these points were already shared. Turns out it helps to be working on a blog post when you’re asked to speak unexpectedly!
1. A few nuts and bolts
After decades of experience with almost 30,000 wards and branches, the Church pretty well knows the ideal ward size. Boundary changes are made as necessary to help keep wards near that target size. Ward boundary changes are initiated by a Stake Presidency and involve a detailed application that is ultimately approved only by the Area Presidency, the Church Boundary and Leadership Change Committee, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and First Presidency. The changes are not made on a whim. It is a lengthy process that usually takes months of work. Whatever implications we might notice in a given change have been prayerfully considered. As bishop, I had literally no part or say in the process (which is fine with me, by the way). Despite the loss I feel at some of the consequences, I fully trust the prayerful efforts of our Stake Presidency and the final decision approved by Church leadership.
2. Secrecy serves a purpose
The details of ward and stake boundary adjustments are kept confidential until a specific time and place. Members sometimes wonder: why all the secrecy? My Stake President explained it this way: because ward boundary changes have a such a huge impact on people’s lives, it is essential that they have an opportunity to receive a spiritual confirmation that the changes are the will of the Lord. When potentially life-changing information is shared outside of the proper setting or shared by the wrong person via rumors or speculation, the way the information is delivered or received can prevent someone from having the spiritual confirmation they need. We all know that some information, while true, can still have devastating effects if it is learned in the wrong way, the wrong time, the wrong place, or from the wrong person. I have periodically seen the negative impact of speculation, leaked information, and inappropriate levels of inquiry of those “in the know.” It can lead to confusion, offense, disappointment, and heartache.
The Lord asks leaders to keep boundary changes and callings confidential so that everyone can receive the information in the most ideal setting. And to be perfectly honest, knowing some of these things ahead of time is often not as fun as others think it might be. As bishop, I knew a change was coming, but didn't learn any specifics until one week ahead of the rest of the ward because the change required me to make some prayerful decisions prior the announcement. It was a lonely few days of knowing these heart-rending imminent changes and not being able to talk to anyone about them.
3. Pruning promotes growth
If you'll indulge me in an analogy regarding fruit trees: It may seem counterintuitive, but productive fruit trees are the ones that are carefully pruned, not the ones that are allowed to grow unchecked. There are a few reasons: Unpruned fruit trees often devote too many resources to wood and leaf growth, reducing resources to the fruit-producing blossoms. As the “infrastructure" of the tree grows excessively, branches and leaves prevent sunlight from reaching the interior of the tree, further reducing fruit production. Trees also risk damage from being overburdened by branches, some of which begin to grow in unhealthy directions.
Pruning increases the amount of resources available to blossoms. Thus while the tree might have fewer blossoms, it produces more high quality fruit than a bigger tree that is not managed. In a very similar sense, Dividing a ward keeps resources from being spread too thin, keeps the infrastructure from being overburdened, allows the “sunlight” to reach more ward members, and provides an opportunity for the members to grow stronger and bear greater fruit. Successful orchards are watched an managed carefully. The Savior watches over and manages his Church.
4. It’s okay if it hurts
Relationships within LDS wards are as varied as the members of the ward. Some relationships are stronger or older or deeper than others, not necessarily by any conscious effort, but just because of the nature of life and social interaction. Watever the relationships may be, the sudden loss of an entire portion of the ward family hurts: from the priest you were hoping to help get on a mission, to the president who will no longer serve on your ward council, to the family that was just starting to get comfortable at Church—it hurts. Friendships forged in the service of God are in my experience the sweetest, and because Mormon life within our own ward is so demanding of our time and resources, we know deep down these ward friendships will evolve after a split, even when our friend may still live only a few minutes away. It just hurts. A couple truths that ease the pain:
First, I truly believe that when the time comes for changes in church callings or relationships, heartache is a positive sign. Surely if it doesn’t hurt a little to be released or to lose half the ward, then we must not have served with much love or devotion. The pain of separation is a testament to the power of our mutual service and the relationships that have developed. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to spend a little time in mourning. Meanwhile, I try to remember this is the Lord’s Church and we are doing his work with his children. How and where we participate in that work is up to him, and even when we've invested our whole hearts with certain people in a certain calling, he may ask us to suddenly make the same investment somewhere else.
Second, relationships are eternal. Years ago, my ward in little old Hyde Park, Utah split when I was fourteen. The dividing line cut me off from my best friend of many years who lived on the other side of the road just a block north of my house. I was crushed. It was as if the whole change was meant just to ruin my friendship. Of course this wasn’t the case, but our friendship did evolve as we saw each other much less from week to week. Yet as I chose to faithfully attend church and mutual each week, a miraculous thing occurred: I made new friends, one especially who lived only one house away across the road to west. Now, years later, both of these special relationships have changed, but both of them still exist and matter. D&C 130:2 says, "And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy." All relationships have an eventual end in mortality. Evolving relationships are a constant part of our lives. People move. Missions end. Careers change. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin taught, "The Lord compensates the faithful for every loss." I believe this includes our relationships.
5. Move forward in faith
Almost every ward member who is invested at all will have a reason to be hurt and/or inconvenienced by a ward split. Whether it’s a change in calling, visiting teaching assignment, or church meeting time, ward splits require at least a little adaptation from each of us. When you view the split from the vantage of those that oversee an entire stake or ward, the immediate consequences are almost overwhelming. Instantly, a potentially huge chunk of ward callings are unfilled. The machine you have worked so hard to keep well oiled and running smoothly is missing multiple key parts. Meanwhile some wrestle with the emotional fallout of such sudden changes in relationships.. Your six-year-old daughter has lost her best friend. The teenage Sunday School class no longer has their favorite teacher. The decade-long visiting teaching companionship is no more. And while I think it’s okay to mourn the passing of what once was, what the Lord really needs, especially in that very moment, is for us to rise up and press forward in faith. Surely everything we fear about the change will come true if we play the victim and settle into self pity. Instead, the Lord will ask us to step up and do more than we have before; to accept callings we’ve never sought for, to reach out and build new relationships when it has been awkward and uncomfortable, to spend hours late into the night prayerfully determining how to act in faith in our particular stewardship.
Ward boundary changes are a perfect opportunity to demonstrate our faith, humility, diligence and commitment. I hope I can show mine. It can be hard and painful, but I love change. I know change provides opportunities to learn and grow, which is, after all, why we are here, right?
What have been your experiences with ward splits? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.