This is a topic that has been on my mind quite a bit lately — what is a member’s duty to stay with a dysfunctional ward? I have been thinking about it because, well, I am currently in a dysfunctional ward. We have a hard time keeping major presidencies (such as the Bishopric and the Elders Quorum) filled. We are on massive life support from high council and missionaries (16 in the ward). We see dozens of baptisms each year, but almost all are inactive within 6 months. Some of those who didn’t immediately go inactive were immediately given major callings and overwhelming responsibilities, and that made them inactive.
I play a major role in running the Elders’ Quorum, and my wife does the same for the primary (I also spot-teach Sunday school, pinch-hit on organ when needed, and play primary piano on a weekly basis). We are aware that, if we were to leave, it would be a major blow to an already fragile ward infrastructure. And yet, it is very difficult to exist in a high-maintenance, all-take-and-no-give ward for years on end, with no apparent end in sight. It is taking a toll on my wife and me. Worse, it is taking a toll on our children.
There are no primary teachers (there are a few who have been called, but they stopped coming to church after being called), so the missionaries teach primary classes, different sets every week. Primary is also, despite my wife’s best efforts, often a disorganized mess. My kids are learning to really dislike going to church, and are not learning much in the way of church doctrine or living. (We do some of this at home, but it’s nice to also have your children learning about the scriptures while at church).
In Elders’ Quorum, when we are not trying to jump-start home teaching yet again, we are poring over a 10-page list of nominal Elders’ Quorum members, large numbers of whom are complete strangers to me (and I’ve been in the presidency for two and a half years!). As it is, I barely have free time from my job to see my family, and have not had time to do a major repair job on the quorum. I tried when I was clerking and had more time, and was not particularly successful then.
There are perhaps a half dozen active members within ward boundaries who refuse to attend and instead go to the very active Manhattan Inwood ward with whom we share a border. I can’t say I blame them — we have considered doing this ourselves. It is frustrating, because we could really use the people who attend in Manhattan. At the same time, I can’t blame them for not wanting to be the first to come over. Yes, it’s pioneering and needed and all that. We are told that we should accept our sacrifices, and that we have a duty to help out in the ward where we are located. I’ve been doing that since arrival, but there is no apparent end to this ward’s dysfunctionality. And being here has, I feel, exacted an enormous toll on my family.
The situation reminds me of an allegory I saw at some point years ago (I vaguely think it was by Michel Foucault, but I could certainly be misremembering its attribution). The metaphor was a hot-air balloon, which is rising out of control, with a number of people hanging on. It is not yet at dangerous height, but will soon be there. In the story, each hanger-on knows that if he lets go, the balloon will rise faster, putting the others in peril much sooner. At the same time, each person’s own self-interest is to let go as soon as possible.
I think of those who don’t attend the ward as people who let go of the balloon. And while I know that they have put me in a worse situation, I really can’t blame them for acting in their and their families’ best interests.
Our time here may be ending next year. We may be moving in several months, and if that occurs, we will probably just tough it out for the last several months in this ward. However, I have now been here for going on three years, and practically every Sunday, I ask myself if I held on to the balloon too long.