Ward Boundary Bindings

In my latest installment of “Me & Mormons” I mentioned a story about not being allowed to visit a friend’s ward because I lived on the wrong side of the street.

I received this response:
There are geographical boundaries that separate the different wards. This is intentional, and in my opinion beneficial, since it doesn’t pit ward against ward. There is a rise of “mega-churches” that try to get as many people to go to their church from far away–so they try to make it exciting.

I’m not really trying to debate the merits of the ward boundary system. The LDS church and its membership is free to do anything they want. This isn’t by any means an issue of doctrine or heresy for either on of us. In the future I will write about mega-churches from the Evangelical side of things.

What perplexes me is that members would be so concerned about it that they would put up barriers to investigators in order to protect the ward boundaries. I’m guessing that most LDS would believe that gaining converts is fundamentally more important than ward boundaries. If it’s more likely to help an investigator to show up at a ward that he doesn’t live in so that he can be with a friend in his first visit, this seems like a reasonable exception to the rule to me. If ward boundaries are critical, then I think an investigator could come to understand them after they convert.

But everything I’ve learned about missiology says that the last thing you want to do is put up barriers to people coming to hear your message. My new LDS friends came off as rather “peculiar” and unnaturally rigid when the conversation went like this:

ME: I’d love to come to church with you (thinking this is something they’d be excited to hear)

LDS FRIENDS: No I’m sorry you can’t. You live across the street from us. We’re not allowed to bring you to our ward

ME:
[thinking to myself] OMG, this is a cult.

Seth recently wrote another post which I think is another classic example of putting barriers up that keep investigators away.

The Book of Acts is a great example of how the early Christians did what ever they could to unhinder the Gospel. It seems to me that this should always be our goal. This was one of many examples of how the LDS church seemed to me so locked into the “Preach My Gospel” method that they don’t want anyone coming to the faith unless they follow this strict path laid out to them. In my many conversations with LDS over the years I run into quite a few people who melt protocol and the gospel into the same thing. As if structure, hierarchy = salvation from sin by grace

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37 thoughts on “Ward Boundary Bindings

  1. Honestly, Tim, I’ve never experienced Mormonism in such a rigid way as to turn away investigators who lived on the wrong side of the street. If I ever brought friends with me to church, they came from wherever they lived and came to my ward.

    And heck, up in Harlem, people would go to that ward from all over Manhattan. They’d move, but refuse to switch wards… because the Harlem ward really was just incredible. The church leaders in New York didn’t really try that hard to discourage it either, especially for the oldies.

  2. But Harlem was a special case because the Stake Presidency was purposely lenient about boundaries for the Harlem Ward because they wanted to strengthen the small and growing congregation.

    As a Mormon missionary the issue came up sometimes and it was often tricky–we were told that the best way for people to become converted is though their friendships, but what happens when their friends live on the other side of town?

    At the same time, I have seen stubborn Mormons go to whatever ward they felt like…

  3. I’ll just reiterate here that the stated intent of ward/stake boundaries is apparently Mike’s opinion and it is not clear (to me) what was the historical reason.

    And since this is now a separate post, I’ll add that this whole idea seems absurd: I have taken friends to church with me who were not in my ward boundaries. My friends do the same thing. It’s very common.

    Now, my friends were not “investigating,” they were merely attending out of curiosity. If I ever have a friend who wants to become LDS, then I will suggest going with him to his future ward until he feels comfortable without me there.

    Your friends mistreated you by insisting that you follow ward boundaries; you were right to think it sounded cultish.

  4. It’s a shame that some Mormons are so strict in their adherence to such things. I wish often that Mormons would be a little more like Evangelicals in their fellowshipping attitudes.

  5. It is my comment that is referenced in the post. I didn’t anticipate that my comment would spark such heated feelings, or I would have clarified further. Let me clarify my position now.

    I wasn’t claiming to know the historical reasons for ward boundaries, I was simply pointing out one benefit that I see. And I did acknowledge in my comment that separating neighbors is a negative consequence. I’m not arguing that the current system is perfect. But I think members choosing wherever they want to go has problems as well.

    Also, I agree with brianj that your friend was being a too nit-picky. If my friend wanted to come to church with me and lived across the street (assuming that was out of the ward), I wouldn’t think twice about taking him. If he showed more interest and started to “gain a testimony” to use Mormon-lingo, then at some point he’d probably need to switch over to the other ward. And having the member friend attend the other ward with the investigator at first is something I’ve seen too. So my comment was not to suggest that you should not have been allowed to attend the ward of your choice. It’s not a matter or what you’re “allowed” to do. No one is going to force you to leave the building. But if you believe that the Church is true and want to contribute to it, normally people accept the way the Church does things. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for improvement and members can and should voice their opinions on how such rules can be improved.

    It sounds like most of your negative feelings on the matter stem from the conversation with your friend. And I agree that the conversation is strange and, in my experience, not the common way to deal with this situation.

  6. Today, my daughter told me that a friend is not in her class anymore because she moved into a neighboring town 8 miles away. She thought it was weird. As I was explaining to her about school boundaries I thought of this thread. If you look at it like school boundaries, voting districts, blah blah blah, it makes a little more sense. Personally, I thought it was weird when my brother moved a few miles a way and had to change wards whether he wanted to or not.

    I like options.

  7. My brother went through a pretty long, agonizing divorce a few years ago, and both he and his ex-wife ended up in the same ward. Despite how uncomfortable it was for him, he kept attending faithfully to his ward. When he remarried, it became unbearable, so the only way they could get out of going to the same ward as his ex, was to attend the local Spanish branch. So they did so in order to remain “temple worthy.” This whole “no exceptions” attitude is what makes my blood boil.

  8. Sorry…one more story :o)

    When I was a teen, our ward boundaries were changed, and I was removed from all of my good friends (I was completely devastated), and put into a ward where there were only two other boys (priests) my age. These guys were life-long friends, and always treated me like the “third wheel.” I gave it a solid effort for a year or so, then told my parents I had had enough. I started attending my old ward by myself, and I had a much better experience at church.

    I’ve seen and experienced more negative aspects to ward boundaries than positive ones. It’s all just one more form of control. It keeps people in check, and if you don’t comply, then you can’t serve in callings and be temple worthy.

    These stories don’t really have anything to do with ward boundaries in relation to “investigators”, but I thought I’d share anyway.

    I like your blog, Tim. I’ve sort of perused in the background for a few months, but have never taken the time to respond.

  9. zelph: that’s nuts. I know of a divorced man who lives in a neighboring stake but attends (and has his records in) my ward so as not to attend with his ex. He holds callings, etc. just like any other member of my ward. The CHI is not so rigid as some leaders think; it’s unfortunate (to say the least) when guidelines trump people.

    That being said, I can’t imagine the nightmare it would be if everyone could choose their own ward. For example, where 3 wards share a meetinghouse, who in their right mind would attend the 2-5 PM ward?

  10. I personally know of divorced couples who have talked to the bishops and gotten approved for attending separate wards. The leadership isn’t always that inflexible.

  11. BrianJ said: The CHI is not so rigid as some leaders think; it’s unfortunate (to say the least) when guidelines trump people.

    I agree. And I too have known people who have received the OK to attend (and have callings in, etc.) a different ward. Most church leaders I’ve know would rather have you attend a different ward and be happy than not attend you own.

    And I can’t imagine telling a nonmember that he/she has to be strict about ward boundaries. In fact, I’ve had nonmember friends from outside the ward come with me. It’s silly at best to keep people from the gospel because of petty rules that don’t have anything to do with the gospel.

    Tim said: This was one of many examples of how the LDS church seemed to me so locked into the “Preach My Gospel” method that they don’t want anyone coming to the faith unless they follow this strict path laid out to them.

    No doubt about it, there are people in the church who are like that. Fortunately, not all of us. You can come and visit my ward any time you want. 🙂

  12. brianj and SethR: I’m wasn’t suggesting that cases like the example I gave (regarding boundaries and divorce) are the norm, but even if they are the minority, I think there is a bigger problem. You see, when one leader has one interpretation of church doctrine and policy, vs. that of another, then you need to have some sort of “checks and balances” so to speak, to avoid the abuse or misuse of power. This simply isn’t the case within Mormonism. It’s strictly authoritarian from the top down.

    You might say that when one follows the “line of authority” then that compensates for bad decisions by local leaders, but in almost every case that I know of (including in the example I gave before), individuals are almost always told by the higher-ups to go back to their Bishop, or they are given some sort of lecture about how trials in life are meant to help us grow, etc., etc., yadda, yadda (in other words, deal with it, or you are unworthy).

    So, whether it be Ward boundaries, church finances, etc. it all comes back down to authoritarianism.

    Just as a side note, and back on topic of boundary control…show me one dictatorial leadership (be it religious, or political) that didn’t have some sort of strict boundary (or border) control. Just an interesting thouht.

  13. Maybe not “evil” (in some cases), but definitely not “healthy” (in ALL cases). And since in MOST cases in history, authoritarians are evil men, I chose to “avoid the appearance of evil.” But that’s just me…everybody is free to choose :o)

  14. I disagree with you zelph. Authoritarian is not always unhealthy.

    Besides, all your examples are government examples. I don’t think the same logic necessarily applies to religions or other voluntary organizations.

    I’m told the culture at the large law firm down the street is “highly authoritarian” as well. And you know what? No one gives a damn.

  15. Authoritarian is “blind submission to authority.” e.g. “follow the prophet, he knows the way and will never lead you astray.” Any organization that teaches a concept similar to this (be it a government, a religion, or even a law firm) can’t be encouraging one to be honest with him/herself.

    IMO, Those who don’t complain either don’t understand what they’re being submitted to, or they’re getting a nice compensation in return (like in the law firm example).

    “Besides, all your examples are government examples. I don’t think the same logic necessarily applies to religions or other voluntary organizations.”

    I think an authoritarian government and an authoritarian religion have a ton of parallels. The main difference is the motivation. The nazi’s used homicide (much more extreme, of course…don’t think I’m comparing Monson to Hitler, here…it’s just an example), the Mormon church uses guilt (i.e. “stay in your ward boundaries, or else you won’t be temple worthy”, etc.). It’s all a big mind game.

  16. Yes zelph, I get that you had a bad experience.

    Now, do you get that I have not? Just haven’t. Ain’t feeling the Hitler I’m afraid. Haven’t felt the need to kill any ex-Mormons in a long time, or even sneer at their lack of white shirts and ties.

  17. So Hitler’s too extreme of an example, Seth. Whether you think it’s a bug or a feature, the Mormon hierarchy weilds an awful lot of power over its membership. Sure, in theory participation is voluntary, but for people who believe the Church Is True and their eternal soul hangs in the balance, the fact that God himself speaks through an organization and disobedience to the organization is disobedience to God is awfully coercive.

  18. 1) I’m sorry that Tim had a bad experience with his neighbor. From what I can tell, your friend was unneccesarily awkward, when it would have been better for him to be THRILLED by your interest.

    2) Personally, I like the idea that mormons group in a strict geographical sense. Certainly, it is important to heed to the weightier matters of the law, but geographical boundaries offers some great opportunities to be unified as a family – where different people in different stages of life must learn to live, love, work, and be happy together.

    3) About being authoritarian. Priesthood leaders do have authority. It is also true that “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”

    Fortunately, I believe that the church has done a very good job of calling priesthood leaders who have learned a great deal about maintaining that influence not by virtue of the priesthood but “by persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” see D&C 121

    I certainly wouldn’t call this coercive. Neither heaven nor hell are democracies.

    4) I reject the idea that a person is left powerless at the hand of a priesthood leader. My experience is that the members have a huge influence on the bishop who is constantly thinking about his member’s problems. Their problems become his burden.

    What should you do if you feel that someone, including a priesthood leader, has been unjust to you? This isn’t any easy postition to be in. It is, though, a situation we often find ourselves. The first step in moving toward a solution, as it always is, is to come unto Christ.

    By this, I don’t mean that you did something wrong and need to repent – although maybe you did. What I mean is that you will need His help; as we always do. You will need the spirit of meekness. What you actually need to do to remedy the situation depends. But rarely, if ever, is public criticism constructive because a Christ like reaction would be filled with love, hope and charity; not malice or vengance.

    I would recommend privately and charitably sharing your feelings with that person and encourage them to do the same, with a true desire to understand. It is my experience that most problems like this are usually just require understanding.

    You may also want to review Nephi’s actions when his father had a human moment and murmured. See how Nephi helped his father with his Christ-like response?

  19. Warren, 1. It doesn’t look like you really know what “coercive” means. 2. It doesn’t look like you really know what “authoritarian” means. 3. It doesn’t look like you’re capable of looking at or thinking about the Church beyond it’s own PR bullshit. 4. You’re engaging in a game of blame the victim.

    The more I talk to people like you, the more the Church really does look like a cult in hindsight. Sorry, pal.

  20. Seth R: you must not be reading my side notes. Of course the Nazi regime is an extreme example (mas genocide, for example). I have no intention of comparing them entirely, but there are some very subtle similarities (all dictatorial, or authoritarian societies and organizations have the same basic flavor, despite their differences, their extremity, and their motives). You seem offended by my last post, so I apologize for the extreme example, but I challenge you to look at some of these subtle similarities.

    This is a topic that has interested me for a while. I started a blog post a while ago with 8 or so similarities…but I’m still working on it.

    For the record, like any average Mormon, my good experiences in Mormonism far outweighed any bad (not that I couldn’t have had similar good experiences elsewhere, but that’s beside the point), which is why I was so devastated when I realized that I could no longer believe in it. You seem to think I’m some sort of “bitter anti-Mormon” But I assure you that I’m not bitter, and I’m not “anti-Mormon.” I’m just overly sarcastic sometimes, and it comes off wrong :o)

  21. Oh no problem zelp. You’re right about the sidenotes. As for my read on you, I confess that I “know” so many ex-Mormons online that sometimes their criticisms and positions tend to blend together and I get them mixed up.

  22. My position on authority of the church is that it is a box that it has drawn itself into. Its easier to manage a church, grow it, protect it, control it and when it is run like a corporation.

    The Church has designed itself organizationally like a corporation and runs like Google, Inc. or Microsoft.

    Authoritarian is not bad or unhealthy in these contexts. Corporations would not run without authoritarianism.

    That said, the problem is that the products that the current Church is selling don’t meet everyone’s needs.

    That problem is definitely brought out in the boundary rules. Instead of being more flexible to meet the needs of some members, it maintains a certain policy that may alienate members by forming wards that just don’t click and then essentially dissuading alienated members from attending elsewhere. Its kind of like a company that loses good workers by not allowing them to work from home.

    I personally believe that Mormonism would be much better off by being more accepting tolerant and inclusive, but that goes against the grain of the culture and the image of the Church. It might be a bit like Microsoft going open source….losing some control and exclusivity but ultimately may produce a product that more people need.

  23. Jared C: I like the analogy.

    “Authoritarian is not bad or unhealthy in these contexts. Corporations would not run without authoritarianism.”

    I think, once again, the difference is between authority vs. authoritarian. Sure, all organizations need some sort of authority in order to function, and everybody knows that if you belong to a certain organization, then you are expected to regard it’s authority with a certain degree of respect. Authoritarian, on the other hand, is more like a blind obedience to authority. I’ve never heard the church say you should follow your leaders UNLESS you think they’re acting unrighteously.

  24. You are right Kullervo, the Church is run like IBM, if you don’t like your boss, you support him regardless, just because he is your boss. Although you may suffer the injustice of a knucklehead boss, the organization is better off if you are not shaking things up.

    The Church teaching, as clearly stated by Dallin Oakes in that PBS documentary. the Church positions is that Mormons should not criticize church leaders, even when they are wrong.

    There is certainly something to be said for this sort of thing, but it certainly isn’t for everyone and it can leave an extremely bad taste in your mouth.

    Another clear analogy is the Court system. It drives me crazy, enough to quit litigation entirely, to watch some Judge make a ruling in defiance of the law. I see it all the time. Some dumbass, biased, judge who doesn’t even care to understand the law on a particular point make his ruling and attempt to justify it later. It makes me sick sometimes and its all that I can do not to point out to the judge how much of an ass he is for undermining the law. Its completely authoritarian system. I have to live with it, not sure I have a great way of changing it without a breakdown in order.

    I could expect judges to be conscientious, humble and smart but that would be totally unrealistic. So I am stuck with this flawed system that is supposed to be the backbone of justice.

    You could argue that a “true” church should be better than a flawed legal system, but I think that would be an unrealistic expectation as well.

  25. Kullervo, I’m sort of new to this kind of thing and I seem to have made some sort of taboo. I wasn’t trying to be offensive and I’m sorry. Perhaps I’m missing something from the context of the blog beyond just this thread. Could someone help clarify more specifically what I am doing wrong? Did I break one of the Ten Rules?

    Thank you for your help.

  26. No, you didn’t break a taboo or anything. You were just really, really, super wrong. My response to your comment was strightforward, and should be taken at face value.

  27. Honestly, Warren, in many ways yours was a typical LDS response. There are reasons why I left the Church. Seth’s input, for example, is often fantastic but in my experience it really does not represent the views and thought processes of the average member.

  28. yeah, I was going to say, I think the only thing Warren did wrong was to give a standard Mormon response. Your welcome to continue to come and comment Warren.

  29. Kullervo-

    Sure you can appeal, but an appeal does not change blatantly wrong factual findings, and often they just send you back to the same idiot judge to screw you in a way that will withstand appeal. You even have the the Supreme Court making idiotic decisions on political lines. As a member of the “priesthood” of the law I have to suck down the injustice more than others without lashing out real open dissent. The problem is that I believe in the law, I am stuck with the flawed judge. and the system is authoritarian. That said, I don’t know if you can get around the authoritarian nature of legal systems and have them remain intact, even though they depend on people who are often idiots. (we can’t all be smart 🙂 )

    The question for me is that do I want to still be a part of the system. I don’t think I can expect many other human institutions to be much better than the legal system.

    Thats a bit like I see the Church. Of course the fact that I am about to swear off litigation may also be telling about my general attitude.

  30. I think your taking this one a little too far. The whole boundary thing is semi-rigid even for members. I’ve seen special exceptions made for members that don’t want to go to another ward (this happens quite a bit). The boundaries are constantly changing and though you may be in one ward this year, next year you could be in another. The boundaries change based on the number of priesthood holders a ward needs. I think minimum number is ~60.

    For investigators it really doesn’t matter, so I think your friends were being a bit overzealous on this “rule”. The LDS Church doesn’t require investigators to adhere to ward boundaries. However, I can see where a ward might want an investigator to go to the “right” congregation because if converted they would have friends there.

  31. Sure you can appeal, but an appeal does not change blatantly wrong factual findings

    Um, yes it does. “Clearly erroneous” is the standard, I believe.

  32. Kullervo,

    That’s a nice theory. The reality at the county court level is a bit different. And the truth is, the “clearly erroneous” standard is pretty near impossible to meet in many cases.

  33. The reasoning behind attending your own ward is as follows:

    First, Bishop “Smith”, of the 1st ward, has responsibility for Brother Brown. Bishop Smith holds the keys of being that members Shepard and common judge. He, Bishop Smith, has to sign off on a temple recommend, accept tithes and offerings etc. Bishop “Green” of the 45th ward does not have that charge over Brother and sister brown. From what we were told, the Prophet, who holds all keys of the Priesthood would need to give his consent for this action to be taken. Keep in mind that wards are set up for a specific reason, one of them being that the Lord’s House is a house of order. It is far easier to meet the needs of a member if he/she attends a set congregation within a specific geographical boundary.

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