Heavenly Father planned for us to be born into a family—the most basic, most hallowed, and most powerful group on earth. And it is within the family that some of the most important learning we’ll ever gain takes place. In addition to that family group, the Lord also provided the ward or branch family—the basic ecclesiastical unit to which we all belong as members of the Church of Jesus Christ.
For simplicity I will use the word ward to include both wards and branches, since they both serve the same purposes. Wards are not designed to replace the family unit, but to support the family and its righteous teachings. A ward is another place where there is enough commitment and energy to form a sort of “safety net” family for each of us when our families cannot or do not provide all of the teaching and growing experiences we need to return to Heavenly Father. We need to expand our appreciation of the power of the ward family and renew our commitment to participate positively in that community of Saints.
First, ward families provide a sense of belonging. In a ward, as in a family, every person is different and valuable. Paul said:
“For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; …
Several months ago while visiting our children in another state, I walked with our two-and-a-half-year-old grandson from the chapel to the nursery. As he moved rather energetically down the hall, at least five people called him by name—teenagers, children, adults. “Hi, Benjamin,” “Hey, Benjamin,” “Morning, Benjamin.” My heart overflowed with gratitude that Benjamin is learning he, as an individual, belongs to a ward family. Over a lifetime, ward families will help do for him what his family alone cannot do.
In April 1992 general conference, Young Women General President Janette C. Hales asked adult members to “learn the names of the young people in [their] ward or branch and call them by name” (Ensign, May 1992, p. 80). Now, I would enlarge her invitation and invite young men and young women to learn the names of the adults and the children. Overcome your natural timidity and greet as many people as you can by name each week. Our wards will be better places if, like Benjamin, everyone hears his or her own name four or five times between the chapel and the classroom.
Next, ward families provide the reassurance of listening ears. The surest way to increase our love for someone is to listen with patience and respect. I believe our baptismal covenant demands this. How can we “mourn with those that mourn” and “bear one another’s burdens” (Mosiah 18:8–9) if we don’t listen to know what those burdens are?
We discover and develop our thoughts through conversation, and feel such comfort when others listen with the understanding that our words are not our final statement, but a wondering and wandering process used to reach a clearer understanding.
But we must be careful not to listen as Laman and Lemuel listened to each other. They encouraged mutual murmuring. When fellow ward members complain, blame others, and repeat negative tales, it takes self-discipline to stop ourselves from adding more fuel to their fire of disgruntlement. Mutual murmuring is a smoldering fire that can burst into flame and destroy a ward.
Third, ward families provide encouragement. When friends express confidence in me, especially when I feel overwhelmed by difficult circumstances, the light at the end of the tunnel burns brighter. A steady belief in ward members can often be of far more value than cookies, casseroles, or loaves of bread.
George Eliot, a 19th-century English novelist, said, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?” (Middlemarch, London: Penguin Books, 1965, p. 789). We can make life less difficult for each other as we make our wards emotionally safer places: by being kind, accepting, tolerant, supportive, and positive. No one should be belittled or made to feel less than he or she is within the walls of a Church classroom.
Ward families are a refuge. I know a young family who lived in south Los Angeles during the violent summer of 1992. They could feel the heat from the fires as they sat terrified in their little apartment. Their families in Salt Lake City offered encouragement and their prayers. They could do no more at such a distance. It was a ward member who made arrangements for this family to get themselves and their baby out safely. They stayed with members until they could go back to their apartment. They were safe.
Multiply this story by every natural and civil crisis. Bishops and quorum leaders accounting for families after hurricanes, members carrying food and blankets—it makes no difference where you live or what kind of chaos might occur, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will remain organized, and order will prevail. The wards and stakes of Zion will be a “refuge from the storm” (D&C 115:6).
Ward families provide ways for us to contribute. There are no boundaries for contributing our time and talents. Hopefully, we will contribute everywhere we go, but the structure of a ward provides a good training ground.
After living for 20 years in the same ward, I married and moved to a distant city, where my husband continued his schooling. The people were friendly, but I was shy by nature and struggled to feel comfortable. One Sunday morning as I stood up from the bench at the back of the chapel and turned to go to Sunday School, a member of the bishopric greeted me with a smile and a handshake. Brother Goates was one of many who had extended themselves in becoming acquainted with us. As he shook my hand, he said, “Virginia, get off the back row and join the congregation!”
All at once, I saw with a new perspective. I hadn’t joined the congregation because I was so busy thinking about myself. As the weeks moved on, the acceptance of a calling automatically moved me off the back row, demanding that I think about someone besides myself. My comfort and confidence grew proportionately. Callings and assignments are easy ways to become involved in the lives of others. Paradoxically, as we concentrate on the needs of others, our own needs become less controlling.
Ward families provide a laboratory to learn and practice the gospel. I have always believed that if people are really going to learn something, they need more than an explanation; they need an experience. Alma taught that principle as he encouraged experimenting upon the word (see Alma 32:27).
Heavenly Father expects us to participate in our wards. It is part of the plan. But, Sister Pearce, you may be saying, you have such an idealistic picture of a ward—that’s not like my ward!
You mean, your ward has real people in it—ones who are selfish or self-righteous, unskilled, or undependable? I’m so glad! How could it be a real laboratory for practicing gospel principles like patience, long-suffering, charity, and forgiveness if there were no people or situations that would require the use of these principles? The miracle of it all is that we are real people put into an ingenious structure, designed by God, to help us become like him.
I bear witness that ward and branch families are a great and miraculous part of Heavenly Father’s plan, and I would invite you to love whatever ward you are in. Participate in it, enjoy it, learn from it. Each of us can envision our ward or branch as an extended family and then work to make it that way.