I have visited many Mormon congregations, called Wards. Some wards are very small, being in out-of-the-way places, like tourist destinations in the mountains or at ocean-side destinations. Once I attended services at Jackson Lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We filled a little meeting room in the back of the hotel. Most of the people were tourists who were just passing through, but some were there for the summer, working in the hotel or living in the area. If you visit New York City their ward is also full of visitors, even though there are lots of members of the Church there. This is especially true during the height of tourist season. I live in Hawaii, and we get our fair share of visitors as well.
Normally, when we begin a sacrament service we will welcome anyone who is visiting, then proceed with the meeting. It is when we get to Sunday School, and Priesthood and Relief Society that we get to have introductions. We are as interested in where our visitors are from as they are in being in a new place. Mormons are a rather close-knit community. Visiting a new place is bound to come with questions about who you might know in your home ward or city. It is amazing how many times you run into people you either know from other places and times in your life or who are related to people in your home area. Once my wife and I visited Cody, Wyoming and sat next to a very nice and accommodating woman who turned out to be the mother of one of the professors we work with on campus at BYU – Hawaii. I had completely forgotten that he had been raised in Cody. I attended a ward in Monterey, California recently and was asked if I knew Glade Tew. He happens to be a Dean at BYU-Hawaii, and the man asking had played basketball with Glade when they were in high school many years ago. The list goes on and on.
By and large Mormon congregations are very friendly, but every group of people have their quirks. I lived in Provo, UT in a ward that was either “newly wed or nearly dead”. People had either owned their own homes for decades or were renting because they were students in the area. We found that the older members were very hesitant to make friends with the younger members. They deliberately kept themselves apart. When I finally got to know one of them well enough to ask about this, the reply was that they were tired of having their hearts broken by falling in love with these wonderful young families only to have them move away and never hear from them again.
In some wards there is a real division of neighborhoods and wealth. This makes life difficult because there are very wealthy members living next to and attending church with very poor members. I know this shouldn’t make a difference, but when has an ideal situation ever stopped people from still being people? As in all situations there are those who rise to the occasion and love others unconditionally, and there are others who prefer to stay with their “own kind.” No one ever said that religion was only for the well. Religion is to help the bad man become good and the good man to become better. In some wards this kind of pairing of rich and poor makes for a beautiful blend of those with resources helping those with few resources.
Music is a big part of the Mormon worship service, though in some congregations (wards) you couldn’t tell. Where I live the Polynesians love to sing and they sing loud. It is not uncommon for someone in a meeting to just announce that there is going to be a special musical number and then they call up several people from the group to do the singing, on the spot. Talk about terrifying, but they don’t seem to think anything about it. After a while you learn to roll with the punches.
In some wards I have attended the singing of hymns was more of a solo exercise for the conductor. At least that is how it seems from where I sit in the back of the chapel. Many of the congregations in the United States seem to be afraid to sing. Others wade right in and sing with gusto. Some can be made to sing louder if the personality of the conductor is sufficiently strong to single-handedly muster their courage. I’ve sung under some ward music directors you wouldn’t dare not follow. Other’s I’ve seen, well, you wonder what they think they are doing up there, they seem so lost.
The spirit of missionary work, and outgoing personalities determine whether people get greeted when they come into the chapel. In some wards members are asked to act as greeters for everyone coming into the sacrament service. In other wards there are no greeters, but there are outgoing individuals who just love to meet new people and will make the rounds of the chapel before Sacrament Meeting starts. If you don’t have either of these, then you will enter the chapel and find a seat and people will just look at you. If you are fortunate, someone from the Bishopric will make their way over to you and greet you and welcome you to the ward. When visiting the ward in Monterey, California I went two out of the three meetings before anyone asked me who I was or where I was from. I wasn’t really offended. I understand that some wards are just more timid than others, just like people. Wards have personality too.
The personality of the ward can also be defined by many outside influences. In a small town of mostly farmers, the ward members have all been attending for generations, and chances are good that many of their children have married each other and are attending the same ward. This makes for sometimes uncomfortable situations when families have disagreements, or one member of a family is accused of something and all the relatives from both sides of the family get involved in the situation. Any of this sounding familiar? Some wards are small, and have a core of families that have always been the center of all activity. Suddenly there are boundary changes and there are a lot of new people now attending what used to be very “intimate” meetings. This takes a while to settle down into a new rhythm, with new core members at the heart of all the activities and service projects. The same thing happens to a very large ward that is split one Sunday, and half the ward is suddenly gone, and other people are there to sit in their spot. This also takes time to iron itself out and creates all new dynamics in the ward.
Even something like a change in the Bishopric (leadership) of the ward can affect the personality of the ward. We had a Bishop who was very personable for many years. He was beloved by most, and does all the major cooking for all ward events. If he ever dies I may have to give up eating all together! Then we got a Bishop who refers to himself in the third person. Both are beloved, but with very different personalities.
Be patient when moving into or visiting a new ward. As with all things in life, there is probably more going on under the surface than you might first suspect. People are people. We all want to be loved and welcomed. We all want to feel wanted. The best way to learn to fit into a new ward, in my experience, is to be the one to put out that first hand of fellowship and greet those you meet with a hearty Hello!