To the graduating seniors of 2022, congratulations! The next phase of your life is just around the corner, and so might be your grand entrance into a YSA ward. Now if the mention of such an institution gives you chills, please bear with me. As a tried-and-true veteran of the YSA scene, I have some things you need to know.
I bet by now you’ve heard the rumors: YSA wards are awkward, and all anyone talks about at church is who should be set up on a date with whom. Sound terrible? Well, I have good news for you. As someone who has been in six different YSA wards over the past seven years, I can confirm that the rumors are not true. Saying YSA wards are nothing but awkward is like saying Taylor Swift’s songs are nothing but cheesy—it’s just not true. (And totally misses the point.)
You should be excited about—not dreading or avoiding—a YSA ward. For me, committing to my first YSA ward was my first experience choosing to join a community. And more importantly, choosing to be part of a community centered on Christ.
There is a thrilling work to engage in within a YSA ward. Your peers need you. The Savior is ready to use you. YSA wards can become a beautiful laboratory for Christlike love, were we can learn how to withhold judgment, and how to make connections with people very different from ourselves. This phase of life really can be a time that you will look back on and say, “Wow, what a time to be alive.”
But if you want that kind of experience, there are some things I need to get into your head first. So without further ado, step into my office and learn the six things you must know before going to the YSA ward.
1. You are in charge.
Seriously, you are. Not in charge of the sacrament meeting hymns or the topic of second-hour class, but of something much more exciting—your own social and spiritual experience at church. For example, when you walk into your first sacrament meeting or other activity, you essentially have two choices:
- Wait for someone to talk to you.
- Talk to someone.
The second option, while it may seem scarier, is very empowering. Don’t worry about how the whole conversation is going to go, just pick someone who looks relatively friendly and start asking them a few simple questions. More than once, someone has made my day by coming up and talking to me at church. Everyone wants to be seen, and you can be the means of helping someone feel included, even if you’re the new one. When I’m feeling nervous in a social situation, I try remind myself of something Hank Smith posted on Twitter once:
STOP worrying about what others think about you
START worrying what others think about themselves when they're with you.
— Hank Smith (@hankrsmith) September 26, 2019
I found this mindset shifts the social interaction from a reflection on me, to an act of service I’m providing for someone else, and that makes it easier.
Instead of going into church hoping someone will talk to you, make a goal to talk to someone.
Now, if social anxiety is something you struggle with, give yourself permission to take it slow. Try smiling and simply saying “hello” before you sit down. Please don’t feel like you need to be a big ball of social energy in order to have a good experience at church; there will absolutely be people there who appreciate and relate to your quieter approach.
You are also in charge of your spiritual experience at church. You can’t decide whether or not the speakers put much preparation into their talks. You can’t decide whether all the hymns will be your personal favorites. But you can take the time to pray before church. You can put your phone all the way at the bottom of your purse (or pocket) and choose not to look at it. You can focus on the words of the hymns and the sacrament prayers. And you can listen for the Spirit in addition to what is being said at the pulpit.
President Dallin H. Oaks recently shared this thought from President Kimball, and while it is a little fiery, I think you can handle it:
“We do not go to Sabbath meetings to be entertained or even solely to be instructed. We go to worship the Lord. It is an individual responsibility. … If the service is a failure to you, you have failed. No one can worship for you; you must do your own waiting upon the Lord.”
Do you feel like you just got slapped a little bit? I did too when I first heard this, but after practicing it for a few months, I’m now in love with the idea.
And, honestly, you might be surprised by how moving and instructive the talks and lessons can be in a YSA ward. These are your peers who are going through a very formative time of life right alongside you. They are choosing to be here without the immediate support of their families. There is a rawness and vulnerability in the situation that you can often feel—be excited for it.
2. It is better to look for the good.
Did the meeting start on time, do we have nice musical numbers, is the activity perfectly organized, do we end exactly on time?—I could go on with a list of ways church functions could be perfect. The thing is, though, if you are going to pick apart the hymn choice or the time of the activity or whatever else, you might feel disappointed more often than you need to be.
Of course we want and should work to have well-organized church meetings. But if we become too focused on checking off what we see as requirements, we’re going to miss the most beautiful thing that is guaranteed in every ward around the world: the people. You are going to miss learning to truly see them, to see the Savior changing them, to see the wonderfully awkward dates and cute friendships. You are going to miss practicing how to respond to selfish, ignorant comments. You are going to miss perspectives drastically different from your own. You are going to miss learning empathy, sharing joy, and the pure fun of being really bad at volleyball together.
The key to not missing all of that is simple: assume everyone around you is doing the best with what they have.
I remember being with a group of YSA women who were gossiping about a comment a recent convert in the ward had made at an activity. The group was all convinced he had intentionally insulted one of them. As I listened to their conversation, I thought about this recent convert (whom I am good friends with) and couldn’t believe that he would ever say something to belittle someone. What I could believe is that this new convert comes from a different social background than the rest of us do, and that rather than gossiping about a potential social slipup, we should be assuming the best and welcoming him in. I later heard the recent convert’s side of the story and learned he had just felt nervous that day and said something he didn’t mean.
We should be patient as we learn to communicate. I love this quote from Elder Marvin J. Ashton:
“Let us … assume everyone is doing the best he or she can, and look for ways to help leave quiet messages of love and encouragement instead of being destructive with bashing.”
Also assume everyone is doing the best they can in their callings. If you have a concern, find a way to express it in a way that will actually be productive—like by discussing it with your Relief Society or elders quorum president. This could lead to much better results than thoughtlessly ranting about it with your friends. By looking for the good and for ways to increase that good, you can be part of a community that is safe for everyone.
Are you there to critique or to appreciate? Are you looking for reasons to love or for reasons to leave? I think you’ll see what you’re looking for.
3. See a gap? Fill it.
We all want to be spiritually fed at church. And most of time, I think you will be. But if there are times when the Sunday School lesson is feeling a bit shallow, or the activity is lacking energy, see what you can do about it.
If you want depth in talks and lessons, be the depth: offer insightful comments, volunteer to speak in church, be willing to be vulnerable, actually read the Come, Follow Me chapters before the lesson, put your phone down, and look for ways to serve.
At weekday activities, arrive on time. Show respect to those in charge by listening to them and following instructions. Avoid any comments about how the activity is lame or how it could be run better. Just have fun and be grateful you peers planned something for you! If there is an activity you want to do, communicate it to those in charge, and offer to help in any way you can.
If you want the ward to be more socially connected, start with yourself. Remember people’s names and birthdays. Take a genuine interest in their lives, however dull or exciting they may seem at the beginning. Assume anyone could end up being a great friend, even if they seem pretty different from you. Don’t only sit by your roommates and friends every week; branch out to meet someone new. And finally, ask your Relief Society or elders quorum president about a ministering assignment, and then go introduce yourself to those people.
I think what I’m asking us all to do here is try and be in our wards what Gabrielle was for East High in High School Musical. (If you are not a HSM fan, please feel free to skip to the next point.) Gabrielle comes in as the new girl, and through her kindness unites the jocks, the geeks, and the theater kids into a meaningful friend group. At the end of the third movie, her love interest, Troy, says, “You know, I’m not the only one that changed when you came to East High. Kids that I just used to pass in the hallway, we’re friends now, and we’re supposed to be doing this … together.”
I’m sorry if that cheesy analogy made you cringe, but do you see my point? You can make a huge impact on the ward just by making little efforts to fill gaps and bring depth. And since we brought up High School Musical, we may as well remind ourselves: we’re all in this together in a YSA ward!
4. Don’t make it all about dating.
I’ll be the first to admit that for years the first thing on my mind when walking into a YSA meeting or activity was simple: boys. Who can I flirt with at this activity? Who here is the most dateable?
Now, don’t get me wrong—I absolutely encourage dating within the ward. Dating can be fun and a great way to get to know people. But don’t make each activity only about that. Because if you are basing how fun an activity is or even how good a ward is by how dateable the people are, you are going to miss out on a lot and likely feel pretty disappointed on a regular basis.
So please, please, please, flirt (appropriately) to your heart’s content. But also be there to lift, serve, and just have fun. Remember our Hank Smith quote from earlier? Focus on how other people feel about themselves when they are around you. Be a listening ear, see those who aren’t actively participating and welcome them in. Praise and uplift. I’ve found that when I go to help and to have fun, that’s usually what happens. When I go only to be impressed, I am left pretty empty handed.
5. Vulnerability goes a long way.
Can I tell you about the time I learned how worth it is to be vulnerable at church?
One Sunday, a speaker in sacrament meeting gave a really well-prepared, beautiful message about how she’d seen Christ supporting her through challenges. It was a great talk, but something in me broke while listening. I started crying and couldn’t stop. I related to some of the trials she was explaining, and the world just felt really heavy. I tried to take deep breaths and wait it out, but I couldn’t stop crying and eventually decided to go take a walk around the building.
So I left everything but my phone on the pew and walked out.
A few minutes later, I had not one, but three messages on my phone from friends asking if I was OK. One of those texts said, “Hey! Are you OK? I thought I saw some tears in your eyes, but maybe I just caught you mid-yawn haha.”
I love this text because my friend had presented me with two choices:
- I could blame the tears on this supposed yawn and have an easy out, or
- I could tell her that I was having a hard time that day.
I chose option 2. I chose vulnerability.
My friend texted back and asked if I wanted to talk about it. She offered for us to go sit in her car during second hour and talk for as long as I needed to. Now, I want to point out that this girl who was texting me wasn’t one of my closer friends. We chatted at activities, and I’d known her for several months, but I don’t think we’d ever really hung out outside of church. She didn’t really have any responsibility to reach out to me, except that we were in the same ward.
We did end up in her car for almost an hour as I cried and talked and she listened. And let me tell you—I felt so much better afterward. I didn’t need her to say or do anything grand, just to see me and to listen to me. By the time I was done crying, church was over and people were coming out to the parking lot. This sweet friend offered to drive me over to my car so that I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone else that day.
Ever since then, there was an almost tangible closeness between me and that girl. We didn’t start hanging out all the time after that, but she checked in on me now and again. We shared knowing looks and smiles during church. And when she got engaged, she came over to raid my closet for dresses for her engagement photo shoot.
We were there for each other. And all it took was her invitation to connect and my willingness to accept.
I hope you’ll see a lesson in what both me and my friend did that day. Watch for those who need help, and be willing to offer what you can. And when you’re the one needing help, accept what is offered.
If you’re not sure who to reach out to for help, you could start with your ministering sisters or brothers. You can look up who is assigned to you on the Member Tools app at the bottom of your profile. If you don’t see an assignment there yet, reach out to your Relief Society or elders quorum president, and let them know that you don’t have an assignment. As a current YSA Relief Society president, I can tell you I would love it if a sister in my ward reached out to me like that! Sometimes it is hard on our end to make sure everyone is covered, so I welcome the help to fill any holes.
If your membership records aren’t in the ward yet, you can find the bishop’s phone number on Meetinghouse Locator and text him to ask for the Relief Society or elders quorum president’s number. Then feel free to reach out to them before your first day to let them know you are coming and would like someone to sit by. Ask for what you need to help you feel settled in the ward—I promise it is a welcome request.
6. This is all about Jesus Christ.
I chose the best and most important point for last. The end-all purpose of a YSA ward is very simple: to connect us with Jesus Christ. Preparing for missions, making friends, offering leadership, participating in service projects—all of that is to help us feel closer to Jesus Christ. To taste of His goodness and love (see Mosiah 4:11). To trust Him with our fondest dreams (see hymn 134, “I Believe in Christ”). And most importantly, to help us become like Him.
“Latter-day Saints are exceptional when it comes to serving in Church callings. But sometimes we may go about our work routinely, as though we are merely performing a job. Sometimes our attendance at meetings and our service in the kingdom may lack the holy element of worship. And without that, we are missing an incomparable spiritual encounter with the infinite—one we are entitled to as children of a loving Heavenly Father.
“Far from being an accidental, happy occurrence, worship is essential and central to our spiritual life. It is something we should yearn for, seek out, and strive to experience.”
Doesn’t that give you chills? “An incomparable spiritual encounter with the infinite?” I don’t want to miss that. Bishop Davies goes on to say,
“True worship transforms us into sincere and earnest disciples of our beloved Master and Savior, Jesus Christ. We change and become more like Him. We become more understanding and caring. More forgiving. More loving. … Through sincere and heartfelt worship, we blossom and mature in hope, faith, and charity. And through that process, we gather heavenly light into our souls that infuses our lives with divine meaning, abiding peace, and everlasting joy.”
That’s what I want. That’s what I want for my three YSA-aged siblings, my friends, and for all of you. So let’s go out there and fill the gaps, be the Gabrielles, and most importantly—learn to truly worship the Savior.
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