A Struggling PA Branch

As a missionary in a branch in Pennsylvania, I saw a side of the LDS church I had never seen before. The twelve weeks I spent in this area is the only time I have ever attended a unit of the church that wasn’t a full-fledged ward. On a good week, about 20-30 people would show up for sunday meetings, including all youth, YM, YW, EQ, HP, RS, leadership, and missionaries. Truth be told, the unit should have been dissolved into another nearby ward, but the church had spent a lot of money on a small chapel (and a large plot of land anticipating expansion) and wasn’t ready to give up on this branch quite yet. But the branch faced some challenges. The branch president was an ex member of the stake presidency who had twice-before been president of this branch, and didn’t even live within the branch boundaries. He openly stated that he was tired of the position and wanted to be released, but there was nobody else to take his place. The branch did not even have an EQ President.

Several years before my arrival, the five most active male members of the branch had been disfellowshipped (for what, I don’t know) and did not attend meetings. Their wives and children attended regularly, forming the core base of the branch, but there were very few active male members.

My first observation about this branch was the way it caused me to wonder about the few active males that did attend. For example, there was one man in his mid 30’s, single fellow, who was bright, charming, friendly, attended meetings regularly, and as far as I knew, would have made a perfectly suitable EQ President. And so every week during meetings when somebody would say something to the effect of, “I sure wish we had an EQ president….” it instantly caused me to wonder why this gentleman wasn’t fit for the role. It’s none of my business why, but it was so easy to speculate, which can’t be good for branch morale.

Having so few members attend each week placed a much greater responsibility on those that did attend. For example, since there were all of about 5-6 people attending the combined Priests quorum, EQ, and HP meeting each week (including missionaries), if one member chose not to attend one week, his absense was noticed. Even the sort of weird members who make strange comments during lessons were missed if they didn’t attend one week. In addition, some members were ushered into callings earlier than they normally would have been. For example, the 20 year-old son of the now disfellowshipped former branch president attended most weeks with his mother. His dedication to the church was luke-warm at best, yet he was the ward mission leader, and pretty much filled the roles of EQ president and Priests quorum president since nobody else was doing it. I heard several members remark (not in his presence) that everyone hoped he would grow up a little bit so that they could make him Branch President in a few years. In some respects, these responsibilities and expectations did help him to be a more responsible person than he might have been without them. On the other hand, I also got the impression that the large demands the church was placing on a luke-warm 20 year old was enough to make him run for the hills as soon as he moved out of his mothers home. I have always wondered how his feelings towards the chuch might be different were he living in Utah where his weekly contribution to the congregation might be reading a scripture during sunday school.

It is likely, however, that i will never live in an area where the local unit is a branch (or mission…do we still have units that are only missions? or are we at least all branches these days?). My chosen profession will keep me in major metro areas. I think I prefer it this way, but sometimes I wonder what sort of member I would be if I lived in a small branch of the church.

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