Three wards enter. Four wards leave.

My ward is getting divided this Sunday. Or as you can probably guess from my title, it’s not actually a straight-up split of my ward. It’s that I’m in one of three wards that will have its boundaries realigned, and the result will be four new wards.

churchI’ve been through this process only twice that I remember. One time was when I was about sixteen. My family had lived in the same place for eight years or so, and I was felt pretty comfortable in my ward. Between the time that the realignment was announced and the release of the actual details of who would end up in which ward, I remember being extremely worried about having the ward split cut me off from my best friends in the ward. As I recall, the change ended up making very little difference, at least to me. All my best friends were still in my ward after the split. And in retrospect, it’s kind of odd that I was that concerned. I lived in Utah Valley and the ward was geographically tiny, so even if my friends had been divided away from me, I could have still easily walked the short distance to their houses to visit them.

The other ward division I recall going through was just a couple of years ago, when my wife and I lived in a college town that had two wards that were realigned to make three. I was less worried than I had been as a teen, but I still recall worrying that the people I liked most in the ward would end up split away from me. Again, for me the outcome was very little change. All the people I liked most stayed in the ward with me.

What strikes me about the process of ward boundary realignment is that I know so little about it. The process of how such things come about is pretty much completely opaque to me. So what I’d like to do is pose a few questions about the process and speculate a little about the answer to each, and then hope you, dear reader, will be so kind as to share any knowledge you have in the comments.

What’s the typical timeline between the announcement of the realignment and the announcement of the details of where the new boundaries will be?

In my limited experience, I think it has always been one week. You go to church one week, you learn that your ward will have its boundaries realigned the following week, and then the third week, you start meeting with your new ward. Is this typical, or is it sometimes different? Has anyone gone to church one week and found they had been assigned a new ward, and what that ward was on that very day? Or is the timeline ever longer? Do leaders ever say something like “This ward will be split into two wards, along this road boundary, but one year hence when this new church building is completed”?

Who initiates ward boundary realignment?

Is this a local decision, where bishops talk to their stake presidents and say their ward is too big and should be split, and stake presidents pass the concern up through the hierarchy? Or are there Church employees in Salt Lake who pore over maps and use algorithms to decide when a ward is too big (or perhaps too small and a candidate for being combined with another ward)? Totally speculating, I would guess that the process might be initiated either way, because it’s possible that both the local leaders and visiting general-level leaders and/or Church employees might have insight into different reasons for realigning wards. Local leaders will be aware of problems like that their ward simply doesn’t have enough classrooms to fit in the church building. General leaders or Church employees would be more aware of broader trends that also might affect neighboring wards or stakes, and also of general-level rules or guidelines about how big wards or branches should ideally be.

Who makes the decisions about ward boundary realignment?

Related to the previous question, do stake presidents draw lines? Perhaps with input from bishops? Are female leaders ever consulted? Or again, do people in Salt Lake say where the lines should be? Or do they give general guidelines within which local leaders work? I have to say that the map tool on lds.org makes speculating about where new boundaries will fall far more efficient than it used to be. Rather than trying to remember if the ward boundary runs precisely down this road or that, you can just fire up your browser and see where they all are. Needless to say, in the past week I’ve used this tool a few times with family members and friends to speculate about where the new boundaries will end up being.

What criteria are used to decide where to draw boundary lines?

I’ve heard that a new ward must have a certain minimum number of Melchizedek Priesthood holders and a certain number of full tithe-payers, but I could have this wrong. What other criteria are there? Are boundaries drawn to try to make wards more homogeneous in terms of age (e.g., to put many of the YW/YM in the stake in one ward) or to make them more heterogeneous in terms of age (e.g., to spread the YW/YM out across wards)? Are boundaries drawn to try to follow school district or school attendance boundary lines? If it were up to me, the school boundary lines might be a nice thing to follow where possible, since it would mean that kids in the same ward would be more likely to see each other at school. Are there other boundary lines that ward boundaries might be drawn to try to follow? Cities? States or provinces? Time zones? I also assume that these questions are more or less relevant depending on how densely populated an area is with Mormons. In areas like my Utah Valley ward growing up, wards are so much smaller than any other unit (like school district) that it’s probably trivially easy to keep the boundaries aligned. There are 500 wards in a school district, and it’s only the few out on the borders where the school district boundary is even a question. Similarly, if there are very few Mormons in an area, there are probably multiple school districts in a ward, so it’s not that difficult to make the boundaries mostly line up. It’s only in that in-between space where I imagine it might be difficult to make the boundaries align (again, assuming that’s even a criterion that decision-makers are using).

How often does boundary realignment happen?

I know this must happen fairly often when looked at from the grand scale, since the number of wards announced every April in Conference is always going up. But I wonder how often it happens in the experience of any one person. I’ve lived in four different US states as an adult. Does this increase or decrease my probability of running into boundary realignment? It seems like wherever I’ve lived, I’ve met people who have lived in the same place for decades, and they remember when the ward used to include five cities, and then it shrank to three, and then it became a stake, and so forth. I guess it would make sense that if you live in a growing area, then you’ll see this happening more often, but that if you lived in an area with little net movement of Mormons, that it would be rare.

Who does boundary realignment affect for the better? For the worse?

Like the previous couple of times I’ve been through this, I’m a little anxious about how it will turn out. I’m afraid my best friends in the ward will end up in other wards. But the major reason for this is that I’m a generally anxious person. Like I said above, it’s not that I’ve had bad experiences with the outcomes. I have a teenage son who is very concerned about it, though. We live at one end of the ward, and his two best friends live at the other end of it, so it seems likely that they’ll end up in different wards. So is it harder on teens because everything is harder on teens? Or is there another group it’s harder on that I’m not thinking of? And who might benefit? I guess that might be hard to generalize about, but surely people are sometimes happy about boundary realignment and find the results make their church experience better.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these questions, or on any other related questions that I didn’t think to ask.

 

22 comments

  1. We just went through this last year. The Stake assigned a couple of high councilors to look at the proper boundaries. Our ward was getting too large for the building and needed to be divided. It had previously had the boundaries realigned to even out the youth in the (then) two wards that attended at our building. The resulting 3 wards had similar numbers of active members and youth. In under 1 year, things have already changed some.
    I have seen and heard of various rationales, other than numbers of members, to change boundaries. HS boundary changes were followed by ward boundary changes once in a ward I was in. More recently, I have seen several instances of realignment to spread out the areas with strong, affluent families with poorer neighborhoods. This was clearly a factor in the biggest gerrymander in the recent local change. A portion of a large affluent area was put in with the rest of a ward on the other side of a natural boundary in order to provide more strong leaders. This is also the area where all 3 wards intersect.




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  2. This is a timely post because I very much dread that our ward could soon be split. (We live in the southern US.) We’ve only been in our ward for less than a year, so I’m not terribly attached to any person/families, but it’s a good, solid ward and I’d hate to see it sectioned off. I’m more worried that since we reside not only on the cusp of several ward boundaries, but actually three stake boundaries, we could potentially end up in a whole other stake, not just another ward. (We’ve attended the two other stakes/wards in question and would very much like to NOT go back to them.) But I think changes to stake boundaries are much, much rarer. It has happened in this area before (my husband grew up here) and they had one week’s notice as well. I know it was painful for his mother in particular as she lost many of her good friends, but it mattered less to my husband who was often the only active male teenager in his YM cohort.

    We went through a boundary/ward change in my stake growing up (in Southern CA) about 15+ years ago. We added two new wards to our stake, I think, and I know that since our “rich” ward was starting to skew a little older, they carved out a whole section of apartment buildings and lower/middle income housing to attract a more diverse (read younger) demographic. It helped a little in that regard, but we did lose many of our most solid, well-respected families. My parents still live in that ward and I know they have undergone a second re-alignment of ward boundaries since then. I don’t remember the timeframe between the announcement and the change though. I don’t think it was a sudden one-week turnaround though.

    The hardest change I’ve been though, actually, was the merging of two wards to form one. It was unique circumstances. We were attending an English-speaking military branch in Korea and we merged with another English speaking branch full of ex-pats, civilians, and English teachers. It was a very transient ward that had difficulty sustaining a semi-stable leadership even though it had a large membership. I loved our little military branch. We were a very tight-knit community in similar life circumstances/location and we could do a lot of our activities on base. By merging, our ward boundaries suddenly took in the entire upper half of South Korea and it was the largest ward I think I’ve ever attended. (But it was still a “branch.”) But after a few growing pains, I came to love that ward. It was truly diverse, with people from all over the world: America, Canada, Australia, Ireland, England, France, Uganda, Ghana, South Africa, the Philippines, China, and more. We leaned on and learned from each other and I doubt I will ever find a ward I love quite as much as that one.




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  3. Interesting post Ziff, and the opposite of my current experience:
    http://www.wheatandtares.org/16174/merging-wards-a-change-in-strategy/

    I’ll just chime in with something I brought up in one of my comments in the discussion following my post –
    “I’m getting the impression [from the comments there] that where stake and ward boundaries are geographically much smaller in the first place, they’re much more sensitive to demographic redistribution trends, which would make sense, as the communities within those boundaries are likely to be a lot less diverse. Maybe? That would seem to account for what appears to be the more common formation and dissolution of both wards and stakes, and I’m imagining it doesn’t come with quite the same baggage as such things might elsewhere.
    I don’t know much about the various US towns and cities, and the extent of diversity within geographic boundaries outside Utah. What I can say is my own city in Britain is very diverse, even in small pockets. Social housing, owner-occupied and larger detached homes are pretty mixed up throughout the city. There is also some diversity of employment within the city, and even from here a lot of folk commute in to London to work.”

    Prior to this merger, I’d only ever experienced splits. It did worry me as a teenager, and did split up our already small youth group. In the run up to this merger, my biggest fear was a straightforward boundary realignment in which we’d have lost members to the neighbouring ward.

    So far as I can recall, a weeks notice for the “conference” to effect the change, followed by immediately meeting in the new units seems to be par for the course. It is of course a week rife with speculation. We were told our change had been on the cards for year however, so that must be a lot going on in the background that isn’t seen by the general membership. and approval for the merger had to come from Salt Lake, from President Monson himself, we were told.




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  4. Our stake just went though a shift in November where seven wards became eight. A portion of our ward was carved away and added to the neighboring ward. It was announced last June that they had decided to realign ward boundaries within the stake, so there was a period of about five/six months between initial announcement and announcement of new boundaries. I understand it was suggested several years ago by a couple of bishops in the stake who felt their wards were too large to be effective (in our ward, membership lists were 800+). After the stake president announced the boundaries would be changed, he also announced a series of meetings over the next couple of months to which members could come and discuss their concerns and suggestions about new boundaries. There was also a representative in each ward who would communicated thoughts of ward members to the stake presidency. I understand that a great deal of concern was school boundaries and the number of transient and young members in the stake. The last time a boundary change occurred in the stake, it was about fifteen years ago, to remove a ward, and before that perhaps thirty years of any significant change; I heard that the changes went badly fifteen years ago, hence all the considerations this time. There are many, many members in the stake who have lived here for decades and are used to their wards and expressed concern over being separated from friends and losing ward relationships. The five months between announcements were hard; callings were not extended, assignments un-done, and everything moved slowly. When the changes finally came, there was initially a lot of frustration in my ward that a lot of our “steady families,” including our bishop and previous bishop, were being put in the neighboring ward “leaving us with the transients.” There was some tension for the first month, but after a new bishopric was called, things started to gain momentum again and the adjustment is going well, I think. We live in a tech industry area with a lot of young families who can only afford to rent and a lot of older, established members who have lived here for decades, so I think the change affected the second group more than the first.




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  5. Thanks for your comments and sharing your experiences, el oso, BP, Hedgehog, and SD!

    Hedgehog, thanks for the pointer. I had seen your post before I wrote mine, but I hadn’t read the comments yet, and there are a bunch of other interesting data points that help answer my questions too. Thanks for letting me piggyback on your topic! 🙂




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  6. We had a ward realignment fairly similar to the one you’re describing when I was growing up. I remember there being rumors for a while before the actual meeting when they announced the boundaries (but maybe it just seemed longer at the time). They were building a new stake center, but we officially switched to the new wards a few weeks before the stake center was finished, so we had to awkwardly cram three wards into the old building while we were waiting. My recollection is that they had gotten the boundary change approved by Salt Lake but that approval expired after a certain length of time, so they had to go ahead with the change before the building was ready.




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  7. When I was a kid (late elementary school), they split our ward right down the middle of our small down- dividing the high school. Three years later, they put our ward back together. It made more sense seminary-wise, but it was devastating for me. The friends I had made in a neighboring high school, I no longer had seminary with. In the junior high years, cliques and friendships had been formed and when the ward was put back together, I had no friends among the YW and really hated going to YW’s. I remember locking myself in a bathroom and crying during a YW activity at a leader’s house. There were other issues contributing to some of the angst, but splitting and then rejoining the ward definitely did more harm than good. The boundary changes probably didn’t do much to other adults or kids even a few years younger than me, but as a young teen dealing with it, it was hard.




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  8. My understanding is that it is the Stake Presidents who initiates all changes to ward boundaries. I don’t know if someone higher up can initiate too, if SP fails to see the need for change. SP gives the suggestion of new boundaries, and it is approved by someone higher up. The number of MP holders is a criteria, but I guess it’s not the only one. I think they try to have children and youth in all wards etc.
    Where I live, it seems that the connections to different chapels (many people use public transportation) play important role.
    In my stake all the boundaries are decided by the postal codes. I think there have been some exceptions, i.e. if somebody is needed to be a bishop in other ward.
    Last time our boundaries changed, the change was announced a week before General Conference, and week after people went to their new wards (GC is exception anyway, not all meeting houses have the satellite disk). Rumors of the change had circulated earlier. All influenced by the change (it was 4 to 4 wards, just a boundary realignement) where send a letter.




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  9. Here’s something I just saw in the pioneer diary of Caroline Barnes Crosby. Who knew they had realignment woes back in 1848!

    “In the evening the camp heldd a meeting to organize travelling company. We are in the second co[mpany] led by Capt [Andrew] Cunningham. I believe there are some little feelings with some of the old women and girls, for one I am quite passive on the subject, notwithstanding my former acquaintances principly in the other co[mpanie]s.”




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  10. Several years ago I had a district president who begged and begged to have our branch in northern Michigan spilt in two. Everyone (everyone the higher ups) knew he was on a power trip and trying to show growth to the higher ups. But he got his way (as well as taking over a whole row of classrooms in a tiny building to do large new district offices that are rarely used and otherwise kept locked). So the higher ups spilt the branch. Everyone had three or more callings. Both branches, and especially the youth programs, totally fizzled. This went on for years until this guy was released and one GA noticed how the branches we suffering. Then that GA got us put back together a few years ago. Then a new mission president came in and called the power trip guy into the mission presidency. At least in my experience, wards/branches are used as pawns and spilt by aspiring GAs to artificially show success (growth).




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  11. I live in Brisbane Australia which is a sub tropical city of 2 million plus. There a 7 stakes and a temple here. 40 minutes to the south is the Gold Coast with another 2 stakes, and 40 minutes to the north is the Sunshine Coast which also has a stake.

    Our stake has 6 wards, and only one ward sized building. 3 wards meet in that building. The other wards meet in buildings in adjoining stakes. We have about 140 at meetings. Because of our climate lots of members from cooler places move here. Lots of islanders move here too. Winter days average 22c(72f), and winter nights 10c (50f), summer days 30c (85f) and summer nights 22c. Convert baptisms are quite rare.

    We have lied in 2 houses in different suburbs in the last 25 years, while ward and stake boundaries moved around us. We have been in 7 wards, and 4 stakes during that time.

    We have a strange situation at present. 6 years ago we had on the south side of Brisbane a Tongan ward and a Samoan ward. Someone (I think Area Presidency) decided to abolish these 2 wards, and have the members meet in their geographical wards. Some complied but most refused and met as an independent group, chose their own bishop, collected tithing etc. They sued the Stake Presidents, and Bishops, for racial discrimination, which failed. About a year ago the area presidency met with the leaders of this breakaway group, and of course we don’t know what was agreed, but most of them came back to church, the bishops and SP they didn’t like were replaced with Polynesians, and last week Tongan, and Samoan branches were reinstated, but supposedly only for the ones that have problems with English. They all knew of the change, and there were lots of testimonies about the success of their strategy. There is cultural pressure for all the cultural families to meet with their group and one of the new branch presidents, has been actively recruiting ,and using pressure as a cultural leader to get his ward numbers up so his will be made a ward.

    Some of those who were sued by this group are not too happy.




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  12. Thanks for your comments!

    Thokozile, that’s interesting that they pulled the trigger on your change early and made the building situation more complicated. Now that I actually know what the new boundaries look like in our situation, I wonder if building issues weren’t a motivating factor in this change. One of the wards meets in a building that’s about to go an expansion, and they’re going to have to drive a fair distance to meet in another building during the expansion. After the realignment, the part of that ward that would have had to drive the furthest is now part of another ward meeting in a closer building.

    niklas, you’ve revealed one of my (many) blind spots! The question of having buildings close to public transportation is one that hadn’t occurred to me, but it totally makes sense. I think one of the BCC bloggers in Europe blogged at some point in the past few years about how difficult it was to get to church on public transportation.

    Amy T, ha! What a great find! I would never have guessed the issue would go so far back either!

    Biebs, wow, that sounds so frustrating! I’m sorry. Your experience is interesting from the point of view that it suggests that the change could be initiated either locally (by the DP) or from higher up (by the GA). It’s too bad there wasn’t more oversight to prevent the ill-advised split in the first place.

    Geoff – Aus, wow! That’s kind of amazing that a group of people was actually able to unite and push back against a realignment decision that they didn’t like. Thanks for sharing this.




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  13. Getting back to the earlier comments,

    el oso, thanks for explaining other rationales for drawing boundary lines. On the question of getting equal-sized youth programs, I might be misremembering, but I think that in the last split I went through, the three new wards actually ended up doing lots of youth programs combined. Like maybe Cub Scouts and Activity Days and even some YM/YW stuff. It seemed like a good solution to me, to give the kids a more robust peer group, and it wasn’t too difficult (as far as I know) to coordinate, since all three wards met in the same building.

    BP, thanks for sharing so many different experiences with this issue. Your last one in particular sounds kind of amazing in how unusual it was. I also totally sympathize with your concern about being split out now, potentially into a whole other stake. My family and I currently live not only in the corner of our ward, but also in the corner of our stake, so it’s not inconceivable that we could face a similar thing in the future. Although now that I’ve seen the boundary realignment, I’m happy to find that we’re almost entirely staying with people we already know (although many of our friends are also off to a different ward).

    Hedgehog, thanks again for weighing in. I think your point about smaller wards geographically being more sensitive to realignment trends makes a ton of sense. And thanks again for the interesting discussion you’ve gotten going on your post!

    SD, thanks for pointing out the issues that might come up if boundary realignment is expected far in advance. That totally makes sense that everyone would kind of feel lame duckish and lots of things wouldn’t get done, or wouldn’t get done well, in the time between the announcement and the change.

    TopHat, wow, that sounds so difficult! It sounds like the division and recombination couldn’t have been more perfectly designed to exclude you. Your experience does suggest again that there’s a particular age that realignment hits hardest.




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  14. Well, I spoke with one of the stake executive secretaries (whose in our ward…) with some of these same questions last night. He said stake president makes the request to area seventy. The there was a lot of back and forth with questions of necessity, etc. This guy in our ward ( you know who I’m talking about) was in on the changes coming for the last 4 months or so . He would be a great resource to ask about all that goes into how they decide to divide everything up. I do think theytake into account active priesthood holders. He did tell me that he believed our ward size was the biggest push towards the split.




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  15. The timelines you offer seem pretty well down the line. We always tried to do our changes the week prior to stake or general conference to give a ward nearly 3 weeks to get organized before their first meetings. I don’t think that is very common, but it worked really well for us.

    Who initiates ward boundary realignment?
    I’ve been involved with several of these and sat through multiple visits with General Authorities, in each and every case this was Local Stake Presidency.

    Who makes the decisions about ward boundary realignment?
    Our Stake Presidency called a committee which was headed up by High Councilmen and committee members were High Councilmen from the area, and we invited others as well from the wards (sometimes) there were always women involved in the ones we did.
    That committee came up with alignment proposals including boundary lines, etc… presented to the SP, typically the SP adopted one of the plans and we moved forward, or didn’t and the committee was dropped only to be organized another time.

    Criteria
    This varies as much as anything. You typically try not to land-lock anyone, making growth opportunities in all wards equally (One former stake reorganized 3 wards into 3 new wards because two of the three were areas of growth and one was diminishing, and quick boundary alignment and all three wards were healthy again with good growth opportunities for all) In areas outside of large populations of Mormons (where I was) we drew in school lines, particularly post elementary education, tried to balance primaries and Youth, etc…

    How often?
    Based on Stake President and growth in an area. The SP I worked for believed in small wards so more adults had the opportunity to have leadership callings, he idea was to split (mostly 3 out of 2) as soon as the three combined wards reached 900 members (on the book members).

    How does it get approved?
    Well, the maps are drawn, and a comparative numbers spreadsheet is filled out, prior numbers, new numbers, etc.. a series of questions including specifically how it affects members travel to and from a meetinghouse. This information is passed along to a Boundary Department in Church Headquarters and they make sure that all the information is in place prior to going to the 1st Presidency. They work with local leaders to ensure that process is smooth with the 1st Presidency.

    Anyway, that’s one bloke’s experience in a stake in the central united states.




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  16. Thanks for giving so much detail, John! Interesting stuff, particularly the leaving wards with growth opportunities. I think my new ward is completely built out, so we’ll only add members if people move in to existing housing or get baptized. But to be fair, it would’ve been really difficult for the people drawing the lines to follow that criterion in this situation.




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  17. I should have clarified that the GA was tipped off by a friend of his who visited the area (personal, not church-related trip) and was filled in after noting a basically non-existent youth program.




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  18. I have been through a few ward boundry changes in my life time. I remember them saying that wards should have contiguous boundries. But in our case, we lived in a an area what if you just looked at the map we were part of the ward. But in reality we were not. We were on the other side of some rail road tracks and had drive through two different wards to get to the other side of the ward.

    The other very peculiar thing about this ward realignment was that in order to keep the bishop in one of the ward the boundry went up the street. When it got to the bishops house it ,cut over to the other side and than back again when it was past his house. It seemed rather short sighted to me.

    I have moved enough times and have been through enough of them that it just seems like part of the routine.




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  19. Very late to this, but our stake just went through this, creating a new ward and re-adjusting some other boundaries.

    It was quite interesting that our Stake President visited each ward a few weeks prior to explain to everyone what would happen some time in the future.

    We have a new Presidency, so the first thing he told us was that the process was initiated by the previous presidency. It is the Stake Presidency that initiates the change, in consultation with the bishops and branch presidencies. The proposal is then reviewed/approved by the Mission President. I think he said it was also reviewed/approved by the area presidency. After that, it is sent to the Boundary Committee at church headquarters. It was at that stage that he met again, first with ward leadership (bishoprics, RS at least, maybe HP, EQ, YM, YW, Primary too) and then with each ward (as a special combined Priesthood/Relief Society in third hour). He explained what the proposal was, how it had gotten there, who it was with (Boundary Committee). He said when they were done, and if they approved, it was sent to the First Presidency for final approval. He said they didn’t know how long it would take; could be weeks, could be months. In the end, it took two months from the time of the meeting for them to call a special Stake Conference (other than a single adult ward created 10 years ago, it’s the first new unit in a long time) to announce it. Our ward went from being the smallest to the largest ward overnight and we’ll all meet for the first time this Sunday.

    The transparency was quite surprising, I have to admit.




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  20. Wow! Thanks for sharing that, Leonard. I’m surprised by the transparency too. It sounds like it might be interesting to get to hear all the detail, particularly the rationale for how they arrived at the proposed new boundaries. Thanks for commenting!




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