I recently read a question in an online forum that made me laugh out loud:
“Do Latter-day Saints really have to go to so many church activities that they have basically no free time?”
Depends on who you ask, my friend.
Between callings, classes, meetings, and activities, free time can easily evade any Church member—but I have a feeling that frantically running from one event to the next is not exactly what Jesus had in mind when He organized and restored His Church.
On the flip side, I’ve heard local Church leaders express concern that not enough members are attending Church activities. Having been in a variety of wards, I can also attest to the merit behind that concern.
Where’s the balance? How do we encourage more people to come to Church activities, and how do we help people feel more relaxed when it comes to planning and participating?
The Church Handbook section on activities provides direction on this. I believe that the fact that Church leaders have taken the time to provide updated, inspired guidance on finding balance shows that it is a concern to them. As a current member of my ward’s activity committee—and a self-made expert on calendar-event-inflicted-stress—here’s what I’ve learned from both the Handbook and from my own experiences about how to strike a joyful balance.
Use All Your Resources
In one of my YSA wards, I was the activities committee co-chair. Each month, we orchestrated a “Break-the-Fast” activity. The simple notion was that our ward members would come to enjoy a meal together after church on fast Sunday. The difficult reality was twofold: We were poor college students and earnest fourth-commandment keepers. In other words, we were as lacking in access to decent kitchen appliances as we were unwilling to break the Sabbath with a mass-order pizza run.
Still, eager to impress our new bishopric, we worked hard to come up with delicious food. This led to a smattering of hectic Sunday afternoons.
I vividly remember one fast Sunday, boiling mismatching pots of pasta on every lopsided burner of my miniature stove while my committee members frantically scrounged together every Tupperware container they could find. Envisioning a lavish buffet to kick off the semester, we’d delivered flyers, made salads, sliced bread, and even arranged carpooling where possible.
We came up short. Pathetically short. You had to laugh, standing behind that slipshod “buffet” table. Ward members came through with their paper plates, silently scrutinizing the shortage of sauce options and piles of pasta that had solidified into clammy, Tupperware-shaped bales within the time it took us to drive over to the venue.
A lot of people left hungry. Fewer people attended the next activity. And fewer attended the next.
Fresh from this failure, I remember scoffing at a line in the Church Handbook: “Activities should not put undue burdens on leaders and members.” It felt impossible to succeed without stressing ourselves sick!
If we’d reached out to the resources we needed, however, those activities would have been far more successful.
It wasn’t the bishopric’s fault. From what they could tell, we had it under control. Month after month, we managed to pull off some semblance of a “Break-the-Fast.” But once we got better at expressing our needs and collaborating with our leaders, we got better at connecting with the right resources and keeping the focus of the activities in mind. That’s when people started showing up—and when I started enjoying my calling.
You’ve Heard It Before: Simplify
For all the savory sustenance it failed to provide, the parable of the Frantic Pasta Fiasco yielded an abundance of wisdom. Not only did our committee learn to reach out for help, we also got better at simplifying.
Our simplest, easiest Break-the-Fast activity was by far the biggest hit. We realized that we were just college students and that college students are universally hungry for one thing: chicken nuggets.
I stood in the Walmart checkout line the Saturday prior to the activity, having cleaned out the store’s entire supply of chicken nuggets from the freezer section. The cashier stared at the mountain of bags, slowly making their way down the conveyor belt. She looked at me.
“…I really like chicken nuggets,” I said.
At the time, I worked at a local bakery. My boss was kind enough to let our committee use the industrial-sized oven that Sunday. We used disposable foil containers, cooked everything simultaneously, brought it all to the front lawn of our apartment complex, and told people to bring their own sauces to share.
Twice the usual number of people came. No one had to arrange rides. There was plenty of food. Everyone had a friend or roommate to sit with. We were even joined by a random dog who ecstatically helped us “clean up” the lawn afterward.
Everyone had a great time—and wasn’t that the point? We didn’t need an extravagant spread of appetizers and entrees. Our circumstances demanded simplicity. And I’d wager that’s true for most activities in most wards. Keep it simple and approachable, both for those planning and those attending, and it’s easier to just show up and enjoy great company.
Bring In Variety
My brothers and some of their friends used to dread weekly Young Men’s activities. Why? One word: Basketball. Every week, it was basketball. The two of them enjoyed hanging out with their peers and leaders but, for being such good sports, they could not care less about athletics.
“Members should have opportunities to participate in activities that appeal to their interests. They should also support others in their interests.” (Church Handbook)
Savvy programmers, avid readers, enthusiastic gamers—my brothers had plenty of personal interests that could have connected them with other young men. The opportunities, though, were sometimes lacking.
When the activities were wider in variety, they were attended in wider variety. Our youth classes and quorums benefited tremendously from chances to engage in our interests and support others in theirs. Encouraging participation in Church activities isn’t just about getting people to show up. It’s about helping them have an enjoyable time!
Plan for “the One”
All too often, the reason some individuals do not attend Church activities is that they feel they don’t belong. It’s our job to help them feel that they do belong.
“Those who plan activities should reach out to all, especially new members, less-active members, youth, single adults, those with disabilities, and people of other faiths” (Church Handbook).
A Relief Society president in one of my wards—I’ll call her Jane—once told a poignant story about this principle. When Jane was eleven years old, she and the other girls her age in the ward were to plan a Daddy-daughter Date. Jane remembered being filled with dread. Her father was not a member of the Church, and he was unlikely to attend a Church event. She imagined the fathers of the other girls, in their suits and ties, and felt embarrassed that her father wouldn’t fit in.
The activity group leader handed out invitations to the activity, and Jane was surprised to see a picture of a square-dancing couple. Jane’s father was a square-dancing caller, and square dancing was one of the main things he and her mother did together for fun. It was perfect! In response to her tentative hope and hand-colored invitation, he agreed to come.
On the night of the Daddy-daughter Date, Jane and her father walked into the dance hall. Jane was shocked to see that everyone had dressed in casual clothes, like her father, and she was delighted to see how friendly the other girls’ fathers were to him. They had a wonderful time dancing together. The activity leaders even asked Jane’s father to call a few dances.
To this day, that experience with her father is one of Jane’s most meaningful memories for a growing number of reasons. She realized that the way the activity had aligned with her father’s interests was no coincidence. Ward leaders and members knew her and her family, their circumstances, their strengths, and their insecurities. The entire activity had been planned around helping Jane’s father feel comfortable attending.
No one leveraged the activity to corner Jane’s father into a gospel discussion. He never did become remotely religious, let alone a member of the Church. But the ward came together for “the one,” and for Jane, it made all the difference in the world.
Connect Everyone with a Friend
In his talk, “One in Christ,” Elder Ulisses Soares implores:
“My beloved companions in the work of the Lord, I believe we can do much better and should do better in welcoming new friends into the Church… We should always be attentive and look for new faces when attending Church activities and meetings. … We can do simple things to help these new friends feel embraced and welcome… such as giving a warm greeting, smiling sincerely at them… introducing them to other members, and so forth. As we open our hearts to our new friend… we are acting in the spirit of ministering.”
As a Relief Society president, Jane reflected on the square-dancing memory from her girlhood time and time again. It inspired her to reach out to members and non-members in her ward area who didn’t typically feel welcome at Church activities.
With the help of her counselors and committees, she always tried to extend personal invitations to those who were lonely, help arrange childcare for those who were single moms or assign individuals to offer rides to those with physical limitations. Connecting people with friends wasn’t just a purpose behind Church activities, it was also the motivation that preceded and elevated those activities.
It’s easy to plan activities for the people who you know will always show up, and those activities can be fun. But planning activities based on the needs of individuals is more than fun; in more ways than we often realize, it’s life-changing.
Help Them Feel Welcome—Not Expected—to Attend
When all is said and done, Church activities should not be confused with Church activity. I’ve heard and felt that implication many times. No one is a less faithful member of the Church for not showing up to a barbeque or a bowling night.
“While gathering in activities can be a blessing, members should not be made to feel obligated to attend every activity” (Church Handbook).
Families and individuals go through seasons of life that ebb and flow with different priorities. Work schedules, personal struggles, or the demands of young children can make it impossible to add one more thing to the calendar.
If you’re responsible for leading or planning activities in your ward, you can help alleviate undue stress by ensuring that this message is clear; All are welcome—not expected—to attend Church activities.
Church activities are designed to bring Church members and others together as “fellowcitizens with the saints” (Ephesians 2:19). Whether it’s through chicken nuggets or square dancing, the hope is that we cultivate unity, celebrate special occasions together, and learn from each other—all in an effort to become closer to Christ.
Give people the tools, opportunities, and incentives (let’s be real, it’s food) they need to enjoy Church activities, then let them decide how to prioritize the time they have available. The Lord understands the heightened impact of choice over obligation. That’s why He gives us so many opportunities to choose and enjoy good things. He’s the “Master of simplicity,” the leading expert on reaching “the One,” and the ultimate true friend. When He is the focus and inspiration of Church activities, those activities can become a joy to plan and attend.
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