Wednesday, November 23, 2011

on community: fellowship vs. friendship

I've been thinking and talking a lot about community these days. Theoretically community is extremely important to me, and I'm taking notice of how the theory plays out in real life, and it's not exactly what I expected.

I've been having struggles with my local church congregation, and I've also been having difficulties expressing my grievances. The congregation is small, just a little single's branch with 30 or so members. They are warm and inviting, and yet I feel left out. They are caring of each other, and they're friendly with each other, to the point that they spend hours with each other every day. They're friends. And I hate it. The thing is, I'm not looking for friends at church. I don't need a social circle; I need a community. I want fellowship, not friendship.  And I'm realizing now what the difference is.

Each community plays a different role in an individual's life, and building a community does not necessarily mean building friendship. Friendship is good, but it is also messy and it often is reserved for particular people, people you trust and want to share close and intimate details about your life with. Friendships are built within communities, but not everyone in the community must become a close friend. And this is ok. We'd probably go crazy if we had to be close friends with everyone. Fortunately other needs are met by community, by choosing to associate with people who are not friends. That's what fellowship is about: finding value in people who are not your close friends, loving people who you wouldn't normally want to hang out with, serving them and allowing them opportunities to serve. I don't believe it's necessary to have friendship marathons in order to fellowship.

I've never been very social at church, and yet I've had few complaints in the last five or six years of my role and my place within the church, even though few of the people in my congregations were actually my friends. I rarely made friends at church with people who hadn't already associated with me outside of church, and yet  right now is the first time in my life that I have not felt part of a community. I feel like my branch is one giant clique, and honestly I just am not interested, nor do I have the time to devote to making friends with these people. They overwhelm me. (Seriously, the one time I hung out with them it lasted from 6pm to 4am. I never spend that much time with my closest friends, let alone people I'd only met a few times before.)

But I still need a place where I can find like-minded people to talk about God with, and I still need people to take care of, and people to take care of me. Since I stopped going to activities and stopped hanging out with people, and since I've missed the last three Sundays, only one person has contacted me, and no one has tried to find out why I'm not going to church. I know there are people who are responsible for me: home teachers and visiting teachers, the Relief Society president and the Bishop, and yet, no one seems to want to know what's up.

On one level I am perfectly fine with this. On another I feel as if I've simply opted out of a social group and no one particularly noticed. I don't think this is what being part of a community of Christ should feel like.

Now, I know that I am being a) prideful and b) lazy. If I want a community I have to build a community. I have to take part and put energy into it. The thing is, I am willing to do that. I want to do that. And I've tried and felt like my efforts were not being equally met by the community. It's hard when no one seems to notice whether or not I'm there. It's hard when I try to talk about the church, about Christ, about people's troubles and joys and am met with silence, and the people I'm talking to go back to their flirty banter. It's hard when I never received a calling or responsibility when I came into the ward, despite vocally expressing my desire for one to people who have the power to give me a calling.

One time not long ago I held a friend's hand. I wanted to show him that I cared about him. I wanted him to feel a physical manifestation of my willingness to be there for him. He never responded; his hand was a cold dead fish. It hurt; I felt that I wasn't needed there. I've tried repeatedly in other ways to put myself out there to connect to him, and my efforts are often met with that same coldness. We do connect in other ways, but I always feel some sort of dissatisfaction in our relationship.

I was listening to a song today that reminded me of this feeling I have with this friend, and suddenly I realized I felt the same way about the church. "I'm tired of trying when I don't get nothing back."  I am in an unhealthy, one-sided relationship with the church. It doesn't want or need me, and my efforts are met with coldness. That is not right; this cannot be a one-sided deal.

So the church community is not really available to me right now, and I'm tired of trying. Fortunately there are other communities. I have a school community that appreciates my efforts to connect to them. I have a roommate who trusts me and shares with me. I have internet communities and a family community and old friend communities. I'm not giving up on the church community. I hope things change with this one, or I hope I'll be able to find the community I need some day, but right now I just don't know what to do.

Today while out and about with a friend I saw a flock of sparrows. It's a bit unnerving thing to watch. They look like a swarm of bees, a big black cloud moving together as one. I was close enough to look at them more individually and it appeared to me that they moved in relation to one another. They fluttered around each other, and as they focused on the individuals in the flock, they moved as one across the sky. I think that's how communities work. If we all just moved on our own in our own direction we fly off in a million different directions, but if we focus on our relationships with the individuals in our group, we stay together and we move together.  That's what I want. I don't want to flutter around a group of people and never be heard or seen. I don't want to care for some one and be met with coldness. If that's the case, I'd rather flutter somewhere else.

UPDATE: I just read a post on Feminist Mormon Housewives that I think really illustrates to me the kind of fellowship I wish I felt in my ward right now. The author doesn't have any close friendships in the ward, but they clearly look out for her and her family in a moment of need.


  1. I really like this post Jasie. I'm sorry you're having this experience. It's stinky when when imperfect practitioners do not reflect the gospel narrative of fellowship wherein we are foreigners and strangers no more but fellow citizens in the house of God. I think this is part of why I decided not to attend YSA wards many moons ago after leaving the Provo/Y community- I think the demographics of more varied and diverse family wards lend themselves better to altruism. In essense, I am less self involved in family wards when I attend church & folks are generally not absorbed in how good they look to the opposie sex, who got a date with who, etc. It's just a variety of everyday people working out their salvation with fear and trembling.

  2. Thanks for your comment Ber. It might be time for me to try to switch out of the YSA, but I have never really gone to a family ward (I wasn't very active before BYU), and so I'm a bit worried about how that might work out. It's just a weird transitional time for me (and not just in church, but my whole freaking life).

  3. I can relate to all of this... I dunno, personally I feel like a lot of the superficial pressures/interactions that are commom among YSA are largelly non-existent in family wards because people are more preoccupied with the daily business of living, caring for children, elderly parents, supporting a family & the like, which I (perhaps unfairly) give more credence to. On the other hand, as an intellectual and fellow exccentric (in the best most wonderful sense of the word) you may always have to do some seeking out to find that 'meeting of true minds" among fellow LDS thinkers who want to talk about the condition of things, philosophy, history & the like. For me, this comes in the form of a group of wonderifical PoPoMoMos (post post modern Mormoms) I meet with every Sunday as well as in one Sunday School class I sit in on from another ward that is taught by a really wonderful & thoughtful teacher. For everything else I go simply to commune with God in a communal setting & to enjoy the goodness of my brothers and sisters in whom, though we differ in fundamental ways, I find simplicity, goodness, and a sincere desire to do what is right, which is the best that we can expect from each other, methinks. Message me on the FB if you ever need to talk. Hugs! :)

  4. Jasie, I'm part of the group that Berta mentioned and shared this with. You've got some great thoughts here and I can relate to some. These are just a few thoughts and my own experiences.

    I think you're right on with the fellowship and friendship distinction. I might even venture to say this was the answer my Sunday School class was looking for last week when we talked about "unity" in the church. Perhaps fellowshipping--"being of one heart and of one mind," "having compassion" and being "united unto the church of Christ"--is the definition of unity. If not, it's much closer to the real definition than having the exact same Sunday School lesson in any part of the world on any given Sunday.

    Definitions aside, my question is -- and it's one I'm asking myself -- do you even need the church community right now? Personally, back when I hadn't quite found my "crowd," I exerted a ton of effort into the church (on Sundays, in callings, game nights etc.), convinced that if I was friends with EVERYONE I could find SOMEONE who would be a really good friend.

    Now, I've finally moved in with a group of roommates and friends who accept me, love me, talk with me, and genuinely serve me. And my cup runneth over. I still perform in my church calling, but I don't cling to it or the people the way I did before. I've tried to be honest and sincere in (most) of my interactions at church, and I feel I've made a few connections. But it's not the center of my service at this point in my life. Like you said, hopefully it will be again, but maybe not now.

    Are you anywhere similar? Correct me if I'm off the mark.

  5. Thanks for your comment Annie. I'm not sure if I need the church community now, but I desperately want that ideal community, the unity in Christ. I have never been totally satisfied with my church community, except for a few brief months earlier this year. I had 2 callings (Sunday school teacher and a temple calling), few friends but many people I could count on, especially my home teacher who was proactive and asked me if I needed a priesthood blessing whenever things weren't going well or if I was nervous about something in my life. When he knew I was struggling with money he brought me lunch. I was really happy and I felt spiritually fed. I had the opportunity to serve and was around people who also wanted to serve.

    Even if we are surrounded by people who love and accept us, I think that the church community (or other forms of community) is still necessary. It's easy to serve people who belong to you, and I think it's easy to be cozy and happy in your friend group and never reach out into the world. And that I think is the most necessary thing, to reach out of our friend groups and families and be part of communities. It stretches us and helps us be more Christlike. Or, it should.

    Since I moved to this new town I haven't been given a calling, my home teachers have made no contact, and few people want anything to do with me unless I spend hours upon hours in their company. (Which is understandable. People travel over an hour to get to church, and once they're there they want to make it worth their time and so they stay all day, and sometimes all night). If I'm not participating in their friend marathon they don't feel the need to reach out, I guess.

    Maybe a family ward will be different. I hope, and I think I'll have to try it out and see

  6. I agree with everything you've said -- ideally, the church should be a community. But sometimes we learn concepts in church, such as community and unity, that need to be applied in other parts of our lives. Like how my mom never made me go to mutual because I was doing "essentially the same thing, but applicable to me" at play practice on Wednesday nights.

    As far as serving within the church community, I agree that's essential. You bring to mind the scripture, Luke 14:12-14: "When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours... but when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And thou shalt blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just."

    From that and from my own experience, I'd make two possible suggestions: maybe try and find someone who is struggling as much or more than you. Maybe that's impossible, because you'd have to invest hours upon hours with these people to find someone. But if you spread seeds of friendship, you never know where one will land.

    In my current ward, I'm a visiting teaching supervisor, which has to be one of the least fulfilling callings I've ever had. I've tried to reach out to the girls I'm over to be more about "friendship" than "numbers," but feel more-or-less ignored or rebuffed. However, I ended up accidentally facebooking girl who I wasn't over and we struck up a conversation. Since then, we've hung out a few times and we like to think of each other as a friend we have in the ward. None of those in my "stewardship" respond, sadly.

    That may not work. Another option is to specifically ask to give a talk (or maybe bear your testimony), and use it as an opportunity to share some of what you're going through. You don't have to guilt these people, but you could open their eyes to a lesson they may need to learn.

    I also like the idea of a family ward. And that may be the nourishment you need right now. I mean, sometimes our spiritual and emotional wells dry up and we need to replenish them, before heading back out into the desert of challenges.

    Hope some of this is of use.

  7. Annie, thank you for sighting that scripture from Luke. It moved me deeply. Jasie, separate and apart from the question of community (which is an important one) you mentioned the multiplicity of transitional paths that you find yourself on. Thusly I thought I would share this podcast I was listening to that speaks to finding authenticity in a life that doesn't follow the traditional YSA narrative: