Planning to Belong


Becoming comfortable in a new ward or neighborhood doesn’t just happen. Yet we can reach out to find friends and the sense of belonging we desire.

Mine is one of those Latter-day Saint families that keep membership clerks busy. During our marriage, my husband and I have changed our place of residence several times. Though we’ve stayed within the same geographical region, we have had to change wards with every move.

After a few moves, I began to notice a disappointing pattern. During our first year or so in a new ward, I would sit in the back row during meetings. I never raised my hand to answer a question during a lesson, and I was usually out the door and on my way home seconds after the closing prayer. I might muster enough courage to smile and say hi when I passed a ward member in a meetinghouse hallway, but if I recognized that same person at the grocery store during the week, I would look the other way because I didn’t know what to say.

During the long transition from new member to “been around awhile” member in a new ward, I would spend months feeling guilty and frustrated about how uncomfortable I was there. Then, just when I started feeling part of the ward, it would be time to move again.

Many mobile members feel this same way when they move into a new ward or branch. It is our attitude, of course, that determines how we feel at church and in our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. I’d like to suggest several approaches that have helped me and other members get acquainted more quickly and effectively.

Make a “Get Acquainted” Plan

How often do we hear people label a certain ward or neighborhood as either good or bad? I find it especially paradoxical to hear two opposite opinions about the same social group: one person might happily remark, “This is the best ward I’ve ever lived in,” while another might complain, “This ward is so unfriendly.” What makes the difference?

A friendly and outgoing homemaker, Vickie had to make a conscious decision before she started reaching out socially. She describes her experience of moving several times during her husband’s schooling: “I was shy around people until I realized that if we wanted friends in a new ward, we had to make the effort. I had to approach others, even if at first I was only pretending to be friendly and genial.”

“I had unrealistic expectations,” Janet recalls. “If everyone didn’t shake my hand or smile at me, I felt depressed. I was unhappy until I began to see that I was the one with the problem. Then I started approaching people myself. It was hard at first, but now I’m much happier.”

Members who have overcome negative, inadequate feelings about a new social situation realize that making friends isn’t something that just happens. They have found success by adopting a positive mind-set and planning specific actions that will help them get acquainted.

Ideas That Work

Individuals need to find their own ways to get acquainted in new situations, but here are some ideas to consider:

Plan in advance, and set goals. You can smooth your transitions by doing some advance preparation. Before meeting new neighbors, co-workers, or ward members, think of two or three questions to ask or several topics of general interest to discuss. Have a short, interesting self-introduction in mind so that when you are asked to stand up in a group, you can give more than just your name. Advance preparation helps us overcome stage fright by making us feel more confident and at ease—and this helps others feel the same way.

Set some specific goals, such as introducing yourself to two or three new people a week or sitting in the middle of a congregation rather than on the back row. If you have a family, a home evening could be devoted to learning ways to get acquainted. Role playing specific situations helps both children and parents overcome their fears of meeting new people.

Be willing to make the first move. Although you may be gripped with a fear that ties your tongue when you first approach someone socially, be assured that friendship skills improve with practice. The more times you introduce yourself and strike up a conversation, the easier it gets and the more confident and comfortable you become.

“I put myself out to get acquainted,” says Jim, a member in his eighties who moved five times in seven years after spending thirty years in one house. “I like to get to know people one at a time. Once I get to know someone pretty well, I ask that person about other people in the ward so I’ll have a head start when I strike up a conversation with them.”

“I need friends,” says Karen. “When I see a group of neighbors outside talking, I go right out and join the conversation. When I borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor, I go prepared to introduce myself and find out about them.” In a new ward, Karen introduces herself to the members by saying, “Hi! I’m new in the ward and I haven’t met you yet.”

Randy, a father of three, observes that “people like to help. You can meet neighbors by asking them things such as what day the garbage is collected or where the best place is for car repairs.” Vickie asks neighbors and the wives of her husband’s co-workers if they are taking any classes such as aerobics, painting, or quilting. “If I’m interested, I find out how I can join the class, too,” she says.

Focus on others. Remember that people like to talk about themselves. In conversation, focus on drawing out their interests and backgrounds instead of telling them yours. Ask open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered with yes or no: “What have you enjoyed about living in the neighborhood?” rather than “Have you lived here long?”

Joyce reports that her sixteen-year-old daughter, Celissa, was chosen as the “Snow Queen” only two weeks after moving to a new high school. “Celissa was chosen because she was friendly to everyone,” her mother says, “even younger and less-popular kids. Everyone liked her because she was so interested in and concerned with those around her.”

An avid walker, Jim goes out daily to stay in shape and see the world. He frequently stops to talk with people, commenting about their vegetable gardens or asking them how to grow a particular variety of flower. Gradually, he becomes friends with the people he sees each day. “Even people who seem unfriendly at first come around when I show an interest in what they like to do,” he says.

Jim’s wife, Edith, uses a wheelchair or a walker, but this does not stop her from making friends in a new ward. “My philosophy is to not complain about my troubles,” she says. “Complaining just makes you a sour old person who no one wants to talk to. I like to talk about the things that make me happy, and this makes other people happy.”

Pay attention to names. One member makes it a goal to learn the name of every family in his ward and meet them at least once. “I ask around when I see an unfamiliar face,” he says, “and I review my ward directory from time to time.”

When in a new ward, Jim politely asks teachers and leaders to refer to people by their last names as well as their first. “I can’t associate the Bills, Daves, and Bobs with all the unfamiliar faces at first,” he says. “Last names help me make those connections.”

On the other hand, people may feel awkward talking to you if they don’t know your name or how to pronounce it correctly. A member named Eileen, who is often called Irene, Elaine, or Arlene, helps people remember her name by tilting her head to one side and saying, “My name is Eileen, like ‘I lean.’” A member named Tandy is often confused with Sandy, Candy, and Mandy, so she introduces herself by saying, “My name is Tandy with a T.”

Have a get-together. After you’re settled, consider inviting acquaintances from your new neighborhood, work, school, or ward to your home. Parties are a great way to get better acquainted, and you will have the added psychological boost of being in the familiar territory of your own home.

“When we move into a new area,” says Vickie, “my husband and I invite a family from the neighborhood over for family home evening once a month. In time, we have all our neighbors over. They often invite us to their houses in return—but whether they do or not, we enjoy getting to know them.”

Rachel and Finch tell of a tradition in their neighborhood in which the newest family is responsible for organizing the annual summer neighborhood party. “I remember when it was our turn,” Rachel says. “We were nervous because we didn’t know many of our neighbors yet. Organizing the party turned out to be the best way for us to get acquainted with them all.”

Participate in church. “I don’t know of any better way to get to know people,” Jim says, “than by working with them in Church callings.” He suggests that whenever possible, new members in a ward should volunteer to help in the choir or other activities.

“I think it’s important to let leaders know you’re willing to accept assignments and callings,” says Randy. Even if a Church position doesn’t materialize for some time, new members in a ward can get to know several families through home and visiting teaching.

One sister asserts that opportunities for meeting new people are as great when you teach Primary or Young Men as when you attend adult classes: “When you teach the youth, you meet their parents and your fellow teachers and also stake leaders.” Another sister declares that homemaking night is a great time to meet a ward’s sisters and that sports nights and other ward functions also provide opportunities.

Perhaps the experience of Sunja, a convert from Korea, sums it up best: “Be friendly to people,” she says, “and they will be friendly back to you.” Sunja feels that it would be very difficult to meet people in her ward if she did not attend all her meetings. Though she experiences some language challenges, she often participates in discussions.

An Opportunity to Grow

Rather than viewing a move as an ordeal to endure, we should look at getting acquainted in a new area as an opportunity to stretch ourselves and learn more about others—and about ourselves in the process. Even not-so-new members of a ward or neighborhood would do well to reevaluate their social situations and take advantage of opportunities to meet people and make new friends. Such an attitude not only helps us feel more satisfied socially but helps with efforts such as fellowshipping and missionary work. When we reach out to others to build relationships of mutual interest and understanding, we contribute to the building of our Heavenly Father’s kingdom.

Photography by Steve Bunderson

Tana Johnson serves as a Relief Society teacher in the South Jordan Homestead Ward, South Jordan Utah Stake.