For members of the Puyallup Washington South Stake, ward conference took on new meaning this year, as ward members joined with stake leaders to work side by side in service projects.
"Our feeling was that we needed to get out and serve and bless people's lives, and give of ourselves to other people," said Stake Pres. Jeffrey D. Mann. "We are trying to move in that direction not only within the Church, but also in the community."In the past, stake leaders have spent an evening with ward members in an informal setting prior to ward conference. Traditionally they have gone to the temple or had a dinner to get to know each other better.
But this year the stake decided to try a new concept, using the messages of Church leaders as a guideline to reach out to others, yet still rub elbows with fellow ward members.
They particularly looked to the counsel given by Elder Yoshihiko Kikuchi of the Seventy and a member of the Northwest North America Area presidency. In his recent visits to the area, Elder Kikuchi spoke of opportunities that members have to minister by going out in the community with the Spirit and changing lives.
Stake leaders spent the week before the Sunday ward conference meeting involved in a service project with the ward, and meeting with families - particularly those with less-active youth - and interviewing priesthood holders.
The stake presidency asked each ward to prepare a service project as part of its ward conference - a service project that would be big enough to involve as many ward members as possible. The projects could help people in or out of the Church and could be community-oriented.
Ward projects varied.
In the Eatonville Ward, Roger Krotzer, elders quorum president, said ward members insulated 95 percent of a large metal barn in one day as people jumped in and took assignments.
"The brother who received the service was overwhelmed by the turnout and the amount of work we were able to get done in a day," he explained. "It really touched him for weeks. His gratitude came out in his attitude.
"The entire week leading up to Sunday was a spiritual uplift, and the service project rounded it out. This has made us a stronger unit and has helped us see that we can pull together and depend on each other."
The South Hill Ward had 125 people turn out to clean up the Western Washington Fairgrounds in downtown Puyallup. Members from other wards reroofed a home, hauled wood to widows, put siding on a home, replaced the floor in a mobile home and did yard work for a non-member widow and a sister whose husband was stationed in Saudi Arabia.
Boundaries of the Puyallup Washington South Stake extend from South Tacoma to the west side of Mt. Rainier - from suburbia to logging country. And stake members are just as varied in their lifestyles.
"We have a nice diversity in the stake of affluent and less-affluent people," explained Pres. Jeffrey Hochstrasser, second counselor in the stake presidency. "They live near each other and work together and the service projects helped solidify that concept even more.
"The whole philosophy behind the projects was that big changes in the gospel come from little changes that take place in people's lives," he continued.
"The only way we can change the lives of people is to get out as much as possible and bless their lives, help them feel the Spirit and bear testimony. We have been able to work elbow-to-elbow with members and it has been good for them to see us out there working with them. It has allowed us to get to know our people even better."
Ward conferences in the stake were held from January to April, culminating with stake conference May 19.
"Our whole theme this year has been to be of one heart and one mind (Moses 7:18)," Pres. Mann remarked. "We carried that theme in ward conference messages and spoke of coming unto Christ by following the living prophet."
Emphasis was also placed on the pamphlet For the Strength of Youth and the importance of choosing the right.
"Probably the single biggest benefit of the week was when it came to our Sunday meetings," said Pres. Charles J. Hansen, first counselor in the stake presidency. "We were addressing members we now know and have closer feelings for. That is important since we are a new stake presidency."
The stake presidency, assisted by high councilors, held personal priesthood interviews with perspective elders and Melchizedek priesthood holders from each ward.
The executive secretary of the ward personally invited all priesthood holders whether or not they were active. One man who hadn't been to Church in 30 years came to his personal priesthood interview to make contact with stake leaders.
Other brethren used the interview to ask unanswered questions that had kept them away from Church activity. The interview opened the way for several to return to Church activity and to the temple, Pres. Mann said.
"We got to know the brethren better on a one-on-one basis," added Pres. Hansen.
Pres. Hochstrasser remarked: "We would go in and ask about home teaching and then give these brethren time to talk about their lives. It was a wonderful experience."
As a result, leaders in the stake have seen many families and youth come back "because they have been touched and because someone was there to make the invitation to come back," Pres. Hochstrasser said. "In a lot of cases we found that the Spirit was already working on those people. This facilitated the opportunity for them to come back."
During one youth visit the daughter wasn't home, but after visiting with the mother, Pres. Mann and the bishop of the ward learned that the daughter was at work and visited her there. Both daughter and mother came to ward conference and have continued to come out to Church.
"As we walked out of another home, the family wanted to know when we would come visit again," Pres. Hochstrasser remarked. "I think they enjoyed the contact. There were some impressions made and some relationships that were built through it all."
Pres. Mann added: "We became aware of a lot more situations of what is going on in the homes of stake members. This will help us in future ministering and in future training. If nothing else, we hope the members will continue to go out to the homes of less-active members and continue to minister in situations that need priesthood care."
At each ward conference meeting, the stake presidency asked ward members to continue in the same manner - to set in motion the pattern of service, of visiting the less-active and of holding personal priesthood interviews.
"When ward conferences came up, we kind of gulped when we looked at the scope of what we wanted to accomplish with the conferences, but it turned into a great experience," Pres. Hochstrasser recounted.
"It's vital to have the pulse of the stake and this was another means to get that pulse. Our goal is to not be removed from the members, but be there with them as much as possible."
Stake leaders hope to extend service into the community as well. "To be of one heart we must work with every member, non-member and the whole community within the stake boundaries," Pres. Mann said. "Essentially as we bless members and non-members, as they improve and build up their homes, we are becoming one within our stake."