One thing you will notice right away when entering a Mormon church is the small, intimate setting. Despite having over 15 million members worldwide, we choose to meet in relatively small congregations so that each member has an opportunity to participate… and bear responsibility for the other members.
Congregations are geographically based, and are called wards and branches. Typical wards will have about 100 to 300 people in attendance, and branches are organized in areas with fewer members. When a ward becomes too large (through move-ins or convert baptisms), it will be split into two smaller wards, each with definite geographic boundaries.
The reason is simple: It is a tenet of our faith that all the members should be involved in the ministering and teaching within the church.
We have a lay ministry on a local level. The highest ranking authority in each ward is the bishop; he is a volunteer who generally serves for about 5 years in the role, all while maintaining his regular employment and family duties. He receives no pay and is expected to serve 10 to 20 hours a week in his role as spiritual leader and administrator of the ward.
Other members receive “callings” to help in the ministry of the ward as well. Each of the organizations (men, women, youth, children, etc.) has a volunteer presidency and several teachers. Some are called to be responsible for helping members who are going through difficult times; others are called to teach early-morning scripture study to the high school students (yes, every school day!). Others are responsible for membership records, and others for ward finances. Ward members are even responsible for organizing to clean the church building twice a week.
In addition, each man in the ward is assigned to be a “home teacher,” who is specifically responsible for one or more other families in the ward. He is to visit his assigned families in their homes each month to deliver a spiritual message and check on the needs of the family. Similarly, the women in the world are called as “visiting teachers” and are assigned to visit and care for other specific women in the ward. In this way, each man is both a home teacher and a home teachee. Each woman is both a visiting teacher and a visiting teachee. We are serious about caring for our own “ward family.”
Also, because there is no paid clergy, members of the ward are asked (but not required!) to give the talks in church each week. Usually there are one or two youth speakers (12 to 18 years old) who give 3 to 5 minute talks, and two adults who give 10 to 15 minutes talks. The bishop and his counselors assign the topics, but generally do not participate as a speaker.
All of this participation—teaching, speaking, visiting, ministering—allows the ward members to love and care for each other, and get to know each other on an intimate level. It also fosters growth and leadership.
We believe that true religion requires active engagement and participation; it’s not just entertainment… or a motivational speech… or a spectator sport. Ultimately, this method of ministry allows us to fulfil the scriptural charge to “bear one another’s burdens that they may be light,” (Mosiah 18:8) as we collectively grab hold and lift.