Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Inviting the Single Saint to Stay in the Church

This is in response to a post on Keepapitchinin, where some commenters asked what to do about the widespread inactivity of single church members ages 18-30. I decided that it merited a response, but I didn't want to threadjack a lovely post by Ardis.

I'm 27 and single, and I've been active ever since I joined the church as a teenager. Prior to my mission, I held several YSA and institute callings where I saw up close and personal the issues faced with rampant inactivity among the YSA age range. (In my stake, we had about 1000 YSAs on the rolls, and there were between 3 and 10 who were active.)

There are a few issues at play here:

First: The late teens and early twenties are a naturally itinerant time in the life of an individual. He or she is embarking on adulthood and has to find out what he or she believes and wants to do in life. This is often accompanied by going off to college or otherwise moving away from parents. Sometimes people slip through the cracks. If someone isn't converted to the gospel, it's easy to stop going when you move.

Second: The church often doesn't know what to do with single people. We're a church of eternal families. This is a central doctrine. It's a beautiful and all-encompassing doctrine, and sometimes in our excitement to proclaim and discuss it, we leave out people who aren't married. When every Relief Society lesson consists of "and here's how we can teach this gospel principle to our children" or "and here's how we can support our husband as he does xyz", it makes things less relevant to unmarried, childless members. Although I haven't attended singles wards, my friends who do have remarked that the lessons seem to be geared toward "all marriage all the time".

Third: In many areas, there is a critical mass problem. There often aren't enough single people, so those who are there feel alienated. Some of this is solved by singles wards, but when the singles wards suck away some of the faithful (usually across stake boundaries), it makes it that much harder for those few of us who stay in the geographic wards. The singles wards contribute to the married members not knowing what to do about single people because they so rarely interact with single people, as they're conveniently quarantined in a social leper colony.

Now that I've laid out what I see to be the problem, I'll propose my solution. Of course, your mileage may vary.

First: Eliminate singles wards. This will powerfully show the single members that we are all a part of Christ's church. There isn't a separate church for married people and single people. Granted, there will be some wards where there still isn't critical mass. If that's the case, designate one ward in the stake as some sort of singles magnet ward. Basically, it's a regular geographic ward (I hate the term "family ward"; it sounds so exclusive) where all single members are invited to attend along with the members within the ward boundaries. There is a ward like that in my area for the 25-45 age group and it seems to work well. (I don't attend as it's not in my stake, but many of my friends are happy about it.)

Second: Give single members meaningful opportunities for service. I can't stress this enough. I've felt most engaged in the church when I have felt that I had something to contribute. I find it tragic that so many singles go without a calling. We can help. Use us! We can teach, we can provide compassionate service, we can be in presidencies, we can help with the music. My favorite calling was nursery leader, which is usually the calling that a single, childless career woman would never be offered, but it was great to be asked to serve.

Third: Ensure that the youth (i.e. YM/YW) are given ample assistance and training in the gospel so that they can develop a personal testimony before they reach the critical YSA years. Personal conversion to the gospel is essential. Someone is much less likely to fall away if he or she has a relationship with God and a burning witness that this is His church.

Fourth: Get to know the singles as people, not as projects. We're not broken. We're fellow saints walking the same path as you. Sure, our life experiences are different, but that's part of the fun. We know things that you don't, and you know things that we don't. We can learn and grow together. Don't pity or patronize us. Sure, I want to get married, but I'm quite happy in my single state. I feel blessed for all of the opportunities God has given me, and if I sat around wallowing in pity and sorrow, I would be guilty of the sin of ingratitude. Please don't make it any harder than it already is.


Ardis Parshall said...

Second: Give single members meaningful opportunities for service.

This is the key, as far as I'm concerned; regardless of whether there are any other singles around, or whether people pity us, or anything else. If we have something MEANINGFUL to do, we'll be a part of the ward. We'll feel a part, we'll be needed, we'll work with people, we'll be seen by people. We'll stay.

And it isn't just the YSA -- it's true of all ages. I've been teaching Gospel Doctrine for only two months now, and it's the very first time in my long adult life where I've had a calling that demanded significant time and where I feel I am needed and not just filling some slot in a checklist of unnecessary, made-up "callings." I can't describe how everything in and about the church feels different to me now. I'm a part of it, at last, for the very first time since my mission. You think there's a chance of my dropping out the way I feel now? Not a chance.

Nice post, Keri. Now if we could only get a few ward and stake leaders to read it and believe it ...

Kevin said...


This line is the crux of the problem as I see it (not to take away from Ardis' excellent point about service):

"Sometimes people slip through the cracks. If someone isn't converted to the gospel, it's easy to stop going when you move."

I fear that we have failed this group in the transition from YM/YW to adulthood, and if they slip in their moral standards, or get discouraged, or any one of many other issues, it really is easy to get lost. How much a sense of guilt or unworthiness plays a part in it, I couldn't begin to guess, but I've heard someone else say that the real problem in YSA activity levels is sex and the Word of Wisdom. What's your take on that?

Keri Brooks said...

Kevin and Ardis, thanks for your comments.

In response to your question, Kevin, I think you're onto something. Law of chastity and word of wisdom issues can cause problems. I think honestly that the law of chastity is a bigger issue than the word of wisdom, at least past about age 25. There really isn't much social pressure to drink/smoke/do drugs once people get past college age, but there's plenty of social pressure (and biological pressure) to have sex.

I think that encouraging conversion to the gospel would help immensely with this. It wouldn't eliminate sinning (though it will reduce it), but someone who has a testimony of the redeeming power of the Atonement will understand that even if you go and get drunk/high or if you go and fornicate, all is not lost, and that forgiveness is available and that the church still wants them around.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with this more. I have been single in the church my whole adult life and it's not a fun place to be. In my stake, you can't have a 'job of growth' unless you're married. And if you're divorced? Well...that's way at the bottom of the totem pole. It's a second class or less status. I, too, get sick of all the lessons on families. But even I do not know what the answer is. It truly is a church of couples and families. If you're not, you're outside scratching wildly to get in and be accepted. It never happens. All wards/stakes are not like this. Thankfully. I wonder sometimes if it is like this in Heaven. How many times I have heard it expressed that you cannot go to the Celestial Kingdom unless you have that Man. How sick am I of hearing that.

Steve C. said...


Thanks for your insightful response to this issue. Your observations and thought are consistent to my experience as well. I hope that my comments can contribute to the discussion you so graciously are accommodating.
As I mentioned in the Keepa blog, I am the counselor in our branch presidency over the youth and YSA. I am also faculty advisor of the LDSSA at the small university where I am a professor. Finally, I have a daughter who has just moved into the YW program. I am very concerned about the spiritual development of all those under my stewardship. It’s for this reason that I take interest in this discussion. My situation is this: I am a professor at a small university in a small town in the mission field. We are also in a branch that is part of a stake. We are about 50 miles from a main metro center where the bulk of the wards in the stake are.
I think your three observations of the problem are correct. Speaking from our particular circumstances in my unit, we often have people come and go; who, as you say, “fall through the cracks.” It is not uncommon to learn of a student who has been on campus several semesters who is LDS. We also have a critical mass problem. We’re just short of having enough YSA members to have a vibrant group. When the YSA group is small and not vibrant, LDS kids will look for entertainment and activity elsewhere. And yes, we don’t know what to do with the singles. In our unit that became apparent last month in branch council when two of the single adults (30 year old+) in council mentioned that they felt isolated. We immediately got on that and began organizing a single adult group. We had completely overlooked their needs.
I cannot say how much I agree with some of your solutions as well. I believe firmly that the most important thing a parent can do is help their children develop a testimony of the gospel. With my own daughter now in YW and soon will be the only active Young Woman in the branch, I realize more than anything else the importance of a strong testimony. She will not be able to rely on her peers for support. (And unfortunately, I have been disappointed with stake youth activities that are more exclusive than inclusive for people like my daughter.) I believe that early on young men and young women should decide to go on missions, make it their goals and prepare for it. What a way for the youth to build their testimonies.
I also think it’s important to give the YSA meaningful opportunities to serve. In our case, we might need to change our outlook on that. What we run into is that many of the LDS students who come to the university are on athletic teams which consumes a lot of their time and interferes with church attendance. I try to get to know the YSA and LDSSA. I send a monthly newsletter to maintain contact and to show interest in them and their endeavors. I have noticed that most in the branch, however, do not know many of the college students who come in; something that needs to be changed.
I do want to address another issue that relates to YSA, LDSSA and singles wards. We do not have a singles ward in our stake. I think if we did that would be very disruptive to our unit. On the other hand, I think singles wards can meet the needs of the YSA and LDSSA if done right. Related to this is another issue and that is institutional support for YSA, LDSSA and singles wards. Often times, ecclesiastical leaders will praise these programs and yet not really support them. What happens so often is that leaders send their own children to either BYU, BYU-I or a Utah-based university rather than sending their children to state universities. What happens is that those who are from strong homes and could be an asset in YSA, LDSSA and singles wards leave and therefore do not help attain the critical mass. A case in point is my own experience. As newlyweds I began graduate school at a public university. Our stake president had recently organized a university branch and strongly encouraged us to attend. This same stake president, however, sent his own children to a church university. Even over the summers when his children were at home they didn’t attend the college branch. This stake president later was called to be a GA. This experience gave me that feeling that the college branch was good enough for me but not good enough for the stake president’s own children. My point is it seems that church leaders don’t take this as seriously as they should. My point is that many of the stronger young adults leave causing a “spiritual brain-drain” so to speak and we end up with those who are not as strong in the gospel. Furthermore, church leaders—and we as a church body—need to be more serious about supporting the local YSA, LDSSA and Institute programs.
I apologize for my long comment, but this is something that I feel strongly about and greatly appreciate your comments and discussion.

Bookslinger said...

Steve C., as a stake president once told me, "The church doesn't do the Singles Program very well."

One thing that I think both YSA and older SA groups need is stong leadership to organize things and make things happen. Very few of the singles who are active in our stake's SA group have those dynamic leadership skills. If they do, they have other callings.

So what I think needs to happen is call married couples, who have the type of leadership and organization skills to make things happen in groups. Use them when there are not any mover-and-shaker types available among the singles.

A bunch of "Eeyores" doesn't get much of anything done, and isn't fun to be in.

Ami's Mom said...

I appreciated reading this insightful post and the comments - it has helped remind me of all the complexities of being an LDS single adult. I am trying to determine my new role as "Mom" in this equation. I can't say this post allayed my fears - it actually has hightened them to more issues I hadn't even considered!

My oldest daughter recently turned 18 and is facing the "big transition" (YW to RS). She was in tears last night because our YW pres said she cannot go to camp this summer before she leaves for college. Aparently, once the youth graduate from High School they must leave YW/YM immediately. So, my daughter will be the only girl in our ward not being included in camp or any of the fun activities all summer long. My mother's heart is feeling very tender over this. I want my daughter to feel valued and included and welcome at church. It's likely she will feel uncomfortable and bored to death in RS. My daughter's statement was "Mom, I'm starting to think turning 18 is a curse. Suddenly, no one wants me now".

When she leaves for college in the fall, I'm hopeful she will enjoy church in the vibrant student ward there. (But, that transition will present more issues as you have pointed out). I am encouraged by the fact that she has a very strong testimony of the gospel, and is thinking about serving a mission in the future. In few weeks, when YW is taken away from her, I would really like to prevent her from feeling like a "cast-away". If anyone has ideas let me know. Thanks!

Stephen said...

I was single until I was 29 and experienced regular wards, single wards, college wards, etc. Some were great, some not so.

I think that when one is alone, everything seems to impact you more.

But it is difficult.

BTW, on BYU, it is cheaper for our daughter to go there than to attend the local community college. That does make a difference in where she attends.

Teresa Howells said...

Hi there,

I'm not in the "young singles" but am in the "old" singles, or rather the SA program.

Just wanted to comment about the critical mass issue. The singles in my area sometimes combine stakes to put on large activities and that helps the singles get together.

On a side note, regarding activity of the YSA vs SA, I'm not sure about the "activity" rates for singles in the YSA program, but of the 60ish SAs I have on my list (I'm a rep), I don't see as many as 10 of them at church.

Teresa Marie said...

Forgot to mention something. I realize it can be different in the YSA, but I've sometimes seen less intensive callings given to the Single Adults as a consideration for the fact that some of them are doing the job of two parents and are already maxxed out. There is always something meaningful that can be done, we don't have to have a calling for that.

Anonymous said...

To Ami's Mom....
I hope I'm not too late to help with a solution. I hate to say 38 years ago I was in Ami's shoes. A 17 y/o Senior graduating and caught in between Young Women and Relief Society. I too was the only girl not "allowed" to go to Youth Conference or Camp that summer. I was not embraced by the Relief Society, and my wonderful MIA (Young Women) leader recognized my dilemma and wisely included me in Youth Conference as a "youth leader". I bunked with my Young Women leader and acted more as a senior (youth) counselor during the conference, yet attended all the wonderful activities and meetings. The following Fall I received a calling in Primary. I believe because of this wonderful calling I was able to continue to grow in the gospel and remain active today!

Tom said...

I want to stick up for singles wards. I spent 4 years in a family ward while in college. It was a rural ward, and there was no one else in college there. I was there on Sundays, and that was it; I never held significant callings; and it was not a relevant social group for me.

In grad school (and now just beyond--I'm now 30) I've been in two singles wards. I have found them to be very rewarding. They have provided relevant social groups; they have provided lessons and meetings that are not all about families--nor all about marriage (really, in both, aside from when the stake leadership has come to talk, there has been very little talk of marriage); they have provided excellent opportunities to serve and to grow (ward executive secretary for almost 4 years; elders' quorum counselor; FHE coordinator; activities committee chair). They have provided a context in which to grow in the gospel--including being called to serve as an ordinance worker in the temple. Indeed, on several occasions stake leaders have expressed surprise at the reverence of our sacrament meetings and the high quality of our talks and lessons.

I have also had several significant relationships, though none have led to marriage yet. I have felt a real sense of comraderie in these wards, and made long-term friends. (Some even surviving social death (aka marriage, when people stop talking to their single friends).) It is in these units that YSA's people have the best chance for leadership and service--much more than by serving in nursery or primary, which it seems to me would only help to further isolate someone from other YSA's. Having moved into my current ward less than 10 months ago, all three members of the SP know me, as do several of the stake youth leaders. I doubt that would happen otherwise.

Moreover, the leadership in a YSA ward is more attuned to the problems and concerns of YSA's. Similarly, members of the ward council are more able to reach out to many other YSA's, I have found, because they are experiencing the same issues--rather than trying or 'thinking like a parent'--as is the case in regular wards.

When we talk about stake/region level leadership for YSA's, I think there is a dangerous tendency to put older couples in these positions. In my experience, they conduct ineffective programming because they either put together events that are just uninteresting to 20-somethings or because they tend to patronize the YSA's in one or many ways. When you're in your late 20's, being told by some old stake leadership member that all activities must end by 11:30 (because some parent in the stake complained--yes, this happened) really grates. If the leadership can't come from the YSA themselves, it should at least come from people who have experience at being a successful single well into their 20's--not someone who got married at 21 forty-some years ago.

Tom said...

I would clarify, too, that I have never lived west of the Mississippi.

Keri Brooks said...

Thanks, everyone for your comments, and special thanks to Kaimi for linking from the Times and Seasons sidebar.

Tom, thanks for the east of the Mississippi perspective. I'll admit that living in California may have colored my perspective on this.

Tom said...

Ami's Mom: Send her to the singles ward. There, she'll be in an RS that isn't focused on children and invited, at least, to everything.

More generally, I think a lot of stakes are really bad at helping the transition to YSA. Some actually act as an impediment. For instance, in my current stake, we persuaded everyone except the stake young mens president that the priests and laurels should come to a special regional sacrament meeting in early may; and as a result only the graduating seniors will be able to come, and he won the day.

But what's the effect? All those rising seniors will not have the chance to see that non-Utah young single adults can have a functioning, indeed welcoming and quite pleasant church experience, with other LDS YSA throughout their college years.

It is only natural that college students will often want to be in a different environment than their parents' ward, so I think far too many end up believing that its 'utah or bust'--and utah just isn't what a lot of people want. You want to lose fewer youth at graduation? You certainly need to get them a testimony. But stakes can do a lot more to help them bridge the gap. Allowing more interactions with organized YSA's--in controlled settings, like sacrament meetings, service projects, and such, to be sure--but to help them see a path forward outside of Utah is really important.

(At the church-wide level, a good start might be doing CES broadcasts from institutes outside of Utah. I think there would powerful symbolism in having a GA talk to the YSA of the church (including those at BYU) from chapel in the east, or even outside of the USA, with a couple hundred YSA's, rather than thousands from the Marriott center.)

Kaimi said...

You're welcome, Keri. I thought the post was very good, and I'm happy to point people to it.