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A Pitch for Living in High Needs Wards; or Why Large, Stable Wards are Boring

The socioeconomic dynamics around schools are funny things. The largely liberal social scientists I spent time around earlier in life could wax on about the evils of gentrification or white flight, but when it came to their own children they would move, slit throats, or do whatever it took to be in the catchment area for a prestigious school. And I don’t blame them. (However, for all the energy, time, and money you pay to win the “good school” game you could probably give them a killer home education—especially given all the amazing online resources available nowadays—but I digress). 

However, I sometimes see a similar process in regards to ward boundaries, with families going to great lengths to be in the more stable wards with high resources and large youth quorums for their children. I suspect that the insane real estate prices in Utah and Southern Idaho (relative to incomes) are in part because of the demand for these sorts of communities. (I’ve also been heartened to see the opposite happen, with a few hardy souls specifically asking where they could be of most help). 

However, I think big, stable wards and their purported positive influence on kids are overrated. I have experienced both extremes. One of the wards I grew up in now has over 120 youth, with multiple deacon’s quorums.  I have also been in two wards I’d label “high needs,” one in inner-city Philadelphia and my current one in suburb of DC (*not* the DC suburbs where all the members live—on the losing side of the river ;)

In the large ward, with a phalanx of dedicated scoutmasters and youth advisers we had all these artificial badges and tiers of accomplishment to reach for that seemed to substantively mean a lot because of the social weight that the rather large ward structure was exerting on them. (I felt a little cheated later on in life when I realized that nobody in the workforce actually cares if, for example, you have your Eagle).

Of course, a lot of this was aimed towards socializing us so that when we were cut loose to go into the big wide world we stayed true to our roots, but I don’t know how much marginal benefit all the additional structure provided. Like the people who got sick after isolating from Covid for months, sometimes having a little too much structure and protection can weaken natural defenses.

Some got used to being served and getting all the adult attention as the Youth of Zion, and had a jarring experience when they were the ones that had to pick people up instead of being picked up, or when they had to check in on people instead of taking it for granted that adult leaders were praying over you. 

Conversely, my son was the only deacon in his quorum when he was set apart (at his priesthood ordination he was also set apart as president of the quorum). One Sunday, besides the bishop none of the bishopric or elder’s quorum were at Church, so the bishop invited my other then-deacon quorum president son to sit with him on the stand.

Being in a high needs ward helps your children feel needed, and not in the way that is artificially constructed by adults in lower needs wards in order to provide a simulacra of the real world and its responsibilities. 

The sociocultural pressures exerted by a big ward also become something to rebel against later, and often provide a foil for ex-Mormon narratives later in life. For us, besides the family there really isn’t much Church structure-pressure for my kids to react against. They see kids drift in and out of their quorums all the time. If anything, being a member is the act of rebellion. 

By being able to juxtapose active members with the non-active member default, my kids can more clearly see the fruits of the gospel for themselves, whereas people in larger wards sometimes take them for granted, since there is little in way of a pure, nevermo comparison group.

A good stake can also provide some of the structure that a ward can’t provide because of economies of scale. For example, my oldest just went to his first dance, where I know I’m not the only Latter-day Saint parent hoping that his newfound adolescent interests can get leveraged in the right, and not wrong, way. 

High needs wards do have more demands (obviously). However, because it’s tacitly understood that the demand for Church labor significantly outstrips the supply, people seem more understanding about people’s personal bandwidths. I remember my Philadelphia bishop having a “we don’t help people move in” policy; they needed to save that moving capital for when sister so and so was evicted by her unscrupulous landlord and had to clear out in 24 hours. (As a sidebar, if you are in a low needs ward, do not use your experience as a benchmark against which to compare success in the adjoining high needs ward). 

Saying no to callings in a high demand ward makes more sense than rearranging your living situation to live in a low needs ward. However, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to contribute to such wards; even a consistent presence at a pew or in a class can be quite significant, even if you can’t say yes to every ride request. 

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