*For those readers unfamiliar with the structure and beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, click on some links to understand this post better. It's a great church, you should check it out. I know a couple of missionaries who would be happy to tell you about it.
Our first Sunday in Falls Church ward would, I knew, be quite different from our cozy little ward in New York. Bigger is the main thing, much bigger. Sure enough, 5 minutes early and the only seats are on the folding chairs in the overflow section. Ready to jump in full throttle, I leaned over to the couple next to us. "Hi," I said. "We're new." "So are we," they answered. "It's our first week here." And we're off to a good - and representative - start! We didn't catch much of the meeting, this being our first time managing two kids through 1 o'clock sacrament meeting, which is usually nap time. At the end of the meeting, the Bishop announced there would be an orientation meeting upstairs in his office for anyone new this week. How lucky, I thought, that we were here the week they were doing that!
We hustled upstairs for the meeting, complete with several new people/families. They gave us some membership forms to fill out (previous ward, languages spoken, family members, former callings, etc.) and most of the ward leaders were there to meet us. We were also given a few handouts - the Falls Church Ward Mission Statement, instructions on creating a family mission statement, instructions on registering with the ward website and email list, and the contact info of the Welcoming Committee chairperson. In talking with the Relief Society President, Sue, it became evident that the orientation meeting is a weekly occurrence, necessary due to enormous levels of turnover, especially in the summer. "We're big," she said, "but we're lovable!" "Big" is not kidding - 790 members on record, to be exact (a typical ward is about 200 to 400.) Everyone warned us not to expect a calling any time soon - "there just aren't enough to go around." (OK by me...)
During the orientation meeting a friendly woman came to meet me and explained she is the Fellowshipping Counselor in the RS. "What?" Last I checked there are 2 counselors, over Education and Enrichment. "Yeah," she said, "our ward is so big we have 3 RS counselors and 2 secretaries, and a Fellowshipping Committee" (in addition to and separate from the Ward Welcoming Committee.) I think my jaw dropped. I thought back to sweet little Bensonhurst Ward, struggling just to fill basic leadership and teaching callings. And here they have two big committees just for welcoming and fellowshipping? Three weeks later I was called to serve on said committee, my first committee calling ever.
After the meeting we were whisked outside for a digital family photo (by the ward photographer) to go on the ward website member directory. I've never been in a ward even remotely so organized. But, hey, they've got the manpower.
Next it was off to take the girls to Nursery. Instead of one room, Nursery is half of a dead-end hallway consisting of four rooms. They block off the hallway with a rolling cabinet so no kids can get out - or parents get in -, and you drop them off and pick them up at the cabinet (always manned by a nursery worker, of which there are plenty!) I walked up to the woman at the cabinet and said, "Is this Nursery check-in?"
"Yep," she said curtly.
"Well we've got two more for you!" I tried to look friendly and hoped my girls looked nice too.
She looked us over. "Lovely," she said tartly but not entirely unfriendly. "Are you here to stay or just visiting?" (Translation: Are your girls worthy of a permanent marker clip-on name tag being made for them to use each week, or just a sticker one?) This was when the internal breakdown started for me. Where's our small nursery class with our beloved friends and teachers? Where's Lindsay, and Kaleigh, and Bruce? There looks to be hundreds of kids running around in there, and to this woman mine are just two more!
We qualified for the permanent name tags, clipped them on their backs, and dropped them off. I asked her the crying rule, this being Ginger's first time, and she said, "We have a high tolerance for crying. We give them at least 20 minutes and if no amount of comforting or distraction works then we come find you. You don't need to come check on them." I can totally respect that, and walked off happy.
With all that going on we basically missed Sunday School (the 2nd hour) and so I went to Relief Society, which meets in the chapel, the only room big enough to hold us. More of the well-oiled machineness happening there. Weekly RS flyers with the birthdays, calendar items, Visiting Teaching message, Primary theme, this and next week's lesson, today's hymns, Presidency contact info, and all the Enrichment groups and when they meet. My head was spinning. I met a few more people before the meeting started.
As part of the announcements before the lesson, they asked anyone new and visiting to stand up and introduce themselves. This is pretty common. Then they asked anyone whose last week it was to also stand up and let us know. Several did, and continue to every week.
Why such a big ward and so much transition? That also soon became evident, after every new conversation went the same way:
"Hi - are you with the State Department?" (Translation: So many families in the foreign service come here for a few months of training between assignments that I want to know if you are one of them.)
"Oh." (Translation: If I'm in the foreign service and you're not, then we can be chatty but we won't be together long so we won't try to be too good of friends. If I'm NOT in the foreign service but a more permanent resident here, then you have just passed the first test for me to get to know you better, like learning your name.)
"How long are you here for?" (Translation: Now that I know you're not State Department, I need to find out if you are otherwise only here temporarily, like on an internship, short-term rental or other situation.)
"Wow, great! Where do you live?" (Translation: Our geographical ward boundaries are a little strange and stretched out. I need to know if you live close enough to me - Falls Church "side" or Arlington "side" - for me to consider getting to know you better. Especially since there are fierce rumors about that ward boundaries will be adjusted soon within the stake and we may or may not end up in the same ward.)
And it goes on from there. If I passed all the filters then I got to know some people, while others dropped out along the way. Interesting, practical, and a little sad.
But I think we've had a slight advantage over other new move-ins. First of all, we know the Gores from Colorado, who are in Arlington Ward but live close to us. John's aunt & uncle are in our ward and had been warned to watch for us, so we met them right away. Also Jordan & Sara Andrews who we also knew in Colorado were in our ward until this week or next week when they move to a house in another ward. They were great our first few weeks, introducing us to people. Then there's Anne Sorenson and Donna (Tonini) Budway from Fairfax Ward where I grew up. Also I spent an entire RS meeting staring at the teacher, trying to figure out where I knew her from. When I talked to her later we figured out we lived in the same dorm our BYU freshman year. Many other faces look vaguely familiar and I'm slowly working my way through them - it's an easy conversation starter to say, "Hey, you look familiar..." Also we've made a great connection with Jeff and Rebecca Yeates, who both grew up in Oakton Stake and shopped at the Mormon bookstore my grandparents used to own. Jeff also knew my brother-in-law Quinn at college and Jeff's sister married a good Younce family friend, Brian Nanto. They also live on the "Arlington side" and have a 4-year-0ld daughter so we can be friends.
I've been meaning to write this post since my first shocking week in the ward, it being a truly well-oiled, amazingly highly functional ward. But it was such a long, detailed post I kept putting it off. Then last week a member of the Stake Presidency came to our sacrament meeting to announce that, true to the rumor, the wards are going to be reorganized. Falls Church and Arlington wards have the highest membership populations, over 700 each, while another ward (I think there are 6 or 7 total) has less than 300. He said that every ward in the stake, except the Spanish and singles wards which are stake-wide, will have geographical boundary changes, plus there will be a new ward formed.
I was totally excited for the news. First, I've never been part of a reorganization like this so I'm curious how it works out. Second, I'm thrilled to be in a smaller, more manageable sized ward. Third, I get all the excitement and none of the sadness that comes with a change like this. I haven't really made any close friends so I don't care who is or isn't in my ward. Fourth, I will either actually have something to do in my calling, working to welcome/meet new members, or else if I'm in a new ward I have a shot at a more interesting calling - either way, it's exciting. This Sunday, August 3, there will be a 6pm fireside at the stake center to explain the new boundaries, followed by a meeting of the Bishops and clerks to sort out the membership. Then August 10 the new wards will meet. The fireside is expected to be quite popular, so they said to carpool, come early, and only send one family member if possible. I begged Ed to stay home with the girls so I can go, and also graciously volunteered him to watch Sarah Yeates so I can carpool with Rebecca.
So, with August 3 approaching (also our 7th wedding anniversary and Ed's half-birthday), I figured I had to record the amazing experience orienting into this massive Falls Church Ward has been. It is, and I'm sure it will continue to be, a well-oiled machine.