An Apology and a Clarification

My friend Kimberly called after I wrote the most recent post about why I think singles wards are really, really, really bad ideas, and she said, “The only criticism I can give you is this: You can be sarcastic, and you can be angry, and you can write about important issues, but you can’t do all three at once.” Wise words.

I realize that my sarcasm hurt people badly. I apologize. I, myself, after talking to a friend into the late-night about his struggles with the church, also smarted in the morning. Couple that with only two hours of sleep and the vindictive rage of a young, immature up-start, and, well, you get the picture. My words came across poorly to a lot of people, and I wish to apologize. To those I hurt who equated my criticisms of the singles ward structure with those within the structure itself, I sincerely, deeply apologize. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A very huge misunderstanding arose especially when I called singles wards “spiritually deficient.” I want to clarify my words about exactly what I meant (and at this point, most of you will probably stop reading).

My basic thesis for why singles wards are spiritually sub-optimal is thusly: Singles wards provide no specific, extra benefit to young single adults. Not only can family wards provide everything a singles ward can, but it can provide more.

1. Relationships

When I suggested folding singles wards into family wards, many people became concerned that the ability to create relationships with other singles would suffer. I do not believe this to be true for several reasons. Firstly, unless the demographic of singles is incredibly scarce, there will be multiple singles within a ward’s boundaries. You will see other singles within the ward. Secondly, relationships do not form simply within church – we have many venues for singles to meet, such as singles activities (across ward, stake, and multi-stake areas), Institute, and the Internet (social media is quickly changing how we hang out and form friendships). There will be plenty of opportunities to meet other single Mormons in the area and form lasting relationships.

What if you really are the only single Mormon in the entire stake? Maybe even the area? If this is the case, even a singles ward probably could not help you, and you will most likely have just attended the family ward anyway. In fact, there are many areas within the world where this is true – the church does not have enough single people in the area to create a functional ecclesiastical branch, and these people can and do experience rich, fulfilling religious lives within the context of the family ward. However, I would venture that most singles in North America (at least) will not fall into this extreme, and thus, will be able to meet, congregate, and serve each other within the context of a family ward and outside church activities.

2. Singles wards have limited opportunities to serve (quantitatively)

I remember that in the singles wards I attended, we joked that callings were often made up just so that the singles had something to do. I attended large singles wards and that was certainly the case. Family wards, however, suffer from this problem less. My wife and I attended a ward of 700 people, and though a ward that size came with other problems, keeping people occupied with callings was easy without having to resort to “making up” callings like the girl who passes out the Ensign to all the apartments every month (a real calling my wife had – that she shared with someone).

Consider the auxiliary functions present in the family ward:

– The bishopric
– High priests group
– Elders quorum
– Relief Society
– Young Mens (which includes the deacon, teacher, and priest quorums)
– Young Womens (which includes the Beehives, Mia Maids, and Laurels – do they still call it those names?)
– Primary
– Sunday School

And this is not considering some of the extra callings present in a healthy family ward, such as ward librarian and so forth. Each of these auxiliary branches of the church require members to fulfill the various roles. Each section needs a presidency, advisors, teachers, and in the case of the adult auxiliaries, coordinators to help with home and visiting teaching. Running a ward on volunteer service is a lot of work! Obviously, branches function differently, and some wards (because of the area they live in) have weaker organizations and stronger organizations, but for the most part, all family wards have each of these auxiliary organizations running in some form, and those organizations need people to work within them.

Contrast this with the organizations involved in  a singles ward:

– Bishopric
– Elders Quorum
– Relief Society
– Sunday School

As you can see, the opportunities to serve are limited. Yes, several larger singles wards contain multiple elders quorums and relief societies, but notably missing are callings that young single adults can reasonably participate in, such as:

– Young mens presidency (president, two counselors, secretary), priests quorum advisor, teachers quorum advisor, deacons quorum advisor, priests quorum teacher, teachers quorum teacher, deacons quorum teacher, and if you live in North America, at least one Scoutmaster.

– Young womens presidency (president, two counselors, secretary), Laurels advisor, Mia Maids advisor, Beehives advisor, Laurels teacher, Mia Maids teacher, Beehives teacher, in some cases, callings to help run Mutual (or whatever they’re calling it these days)

– Primary presidency (president, two counselors, secretary), Primary teachers across all age groups, in some cases, callings to help organize Primary activities outside the church

Thus, in a ward of 700 people, many people were committed to serving the youth and children of the ward. These, as you can imagine, are enriching, rewarding callings that challenge and provide opportunities for growth. In a singles ward, you are missing out. Reiterations of elders quorums and relief societies do not provide as many opportunities to serve, and they do not provide the wide spectrum of service available in the other auxiliary organizations.

In other words, if you attend a singles ward, chances are, your calling will not be very fulfilling. I was lucky to have mostly meaningful callings; many of my friends and my wife were not so fortunate.

3. Singles wards have limited opportunities to serve (qualitatively)

Inherent in the lack of opportunities to serve because of various missing demographics (i.e., everyone else) is the lack of opportunity to enjoy the wisdom and learning experiences of those in different age groups. The various wards I grew up in were great in this regard – I had many older people take me under their wing; they helped raised me, taught me many lessons that I will not forget, and continued to have an interest in me. While I had good relations with the bishop, at any time if I wanted an adult, older perspective, I could go to any of my older mentors and ask for advice. This does not ring true in a singles ward.

Aside from just older perspectives, younger perspectives and the opportunity to be good role models to the rising generation are also notably missing. Callings in helping the youth to grow can help you remember what it was like to be a youth and enrich your perspective. Most of the people I know who served in young men and young women leadership capacities enjoyed their callings, and even those who hated them mostly agreed they gained growth and experience.

However, a member of a singles ward misses these opportunities in crucial moments of their lives. I remember that as a teenager, the 20-somethings were cool – when they talked, I listened. I wanted to be like them, and they understood that. They gave me advice and perspective when older people were not necessarily “cool” in my book and it helped me out a lot. Later, as a 20-something reintegrating into a family ward, I realize that I did not have any of these “role model” opportunities. I feel awkward around them, and it’s taken me time to remember how to act around those younger than me. Not only do we deprive young single adults of wonderful growth opportunities as role models, our youth also suffer from the lack of associating with them.

This all has the life-changing potential to combine into an incredible environment of love and support. My brother growing up alienated himself from the Church. He decided he did not believe in the doctrines or teachings and vowed he would have nothing to do with it. My parents were pained, and they did not know what to do. Luckily for them, my brother had very close, deep relationships with some of the older men in the ward. These men persisted in keeping him within the ward family loop, even when he did not necessarily want to himself. They had discussions with him late into the night, sometimes giving up three or four hours of their time to answer questions. On the other side of the spectrum, my brother had made friends with some of the younger teenagers in the ward. He saw how they looked up to him for advice, that they attempted to emulate him. Despite his straying from the Church, he knew that if he did anything morally reprehensible, it would devastate them. He saw how they looked forward to the future with hope, and wondered why. All of this combined to molding him for the better, and because of these fruitful relationships and experiences across a wide spectrum of circumstances, he learned for himself what he felt to be true and re-entered the Church culture and left on a mission for South Korea.

I am convinced that had he decided to leave the Church in his 20-somethings instead, a similar environment of love and support could not be provided. Certainly, his single peers would try desperately to re-activate him, but they all have limited perspectives. They do not have the perspectives of the brethren in my family’s ward who, with patience and love, helped my brother navigate the stormy moments in his life.  It is not a lack of desire or righteousness that prevents them from helping someone like my brother; it is lack of experience, something you cannot rush. Some suggested to me that the singles ward is inspiration from God, and thus we should accept it. Well, I think our geographical ward structure is divinely inspired – it has the amazing capability to tap into the lives, experiences, and wisdom of many different people. Why do we need to modify it for young single adults, especially when our modifications cut them off from the very blessings geographical wards provide?

It is no secret among the leaders of the Church that we struggle in retaining our young single adults. I humbly suggest that the singles ward, and the way it is structured, erects unnecessary barriers for young single adults to tap into the incredible goodness Mormon culture has to offer when they need it the most.

4. Singles wards create unnecessary and painful division simply by their existence

What happens when we create singles wards and student married wards? We emphasize that they are somehow different from the rest of us. If they weren’t, then why would we put them in separate wards?

The truth of the matter is, they are different, but so is everyone else in the family ward. A 12 year old deacon’s needs are vastly different from a 35 year old mother with four children, whose needs are vastly different from a 65 year old man who recently lost his wife. Yet all of them can find fulfillment in serving each other in a family ward. Why are single and married student couple needs any different?

The life cycle of a Mormon, then, is thus:

– A Mormon is born into the Church, goes to Primary, and then the young adult programs, and along the way picks up valuable friendships and mentors

– A Mormon turns 18. He or she may leave home for school. Regardless, they are shuffled into a singles ward. Their religious experience is solely centered on those like him or her. There are no older mentors, no younger youth to goof around with. The perspectives of everyone around them are similar and limited. Sure, some people may have different individual circumstances, like the loss of a loved one, or maybe parents who’ve divorced, but a 20-something year old’s perspective, 30-something year old’s perspective, a 40-something year old’s perspective, and a 60-something year old’s perspective is vastly different (unless you want to challenge that statement, and if you do, good luck). These are all notably missing.

– A Mormon now has two choices. They can get married, in which they then either re-integrate into a family ward or go to a student married ward until they have children or graduate, which then they re-integrate into a family ward, or they can not get married for whatever reasons, and then re-enter a family ward at age 30, where many will unconsciously look at them as a failure because they didn’t get married despite being surrounded by single Mormons for 12 years (this unconscious judgment is built into the very structure and purpose of a singles ward).

– For the Mormon who gets married, they lost about roughly anywhere from two to eleven years in the family ward. That’s two to eleven years of hanging out with and serving teenagers and children and getting wisdom and love and direction from older people. The only way to avoid this is to get married right away at 18, which most North American Mormons I know (not to mention almost all the experts) discourage.

– For the Mormon who doesn’t get married, that’s 12 years lost in the singles ward. When they return to the family ward they return as a failure. They return as someone to be pitied. No one knows exactly how to treat them because they haven’t spent any time around people of similar life circumstances. This can be an incredibly demoralizing and lonely experience.

Consider instead this alternative. As a young single adult moves away to find his or her own way, he or she is integrated into just another family ward. The stability of the family ward will most likely encourage the young single adult’s life to be stable as well. He or she makes friends and relationships. He or she picks up a significant other. In the end, they’re married, and all of those around them rejoice. They welcome in the new couple, already familiar at least with one of the previously single people, and treating them like people, they help them adjust to the new married life.

Or consider this alternative. A young single adult moves away to find his or her own way. Perhaps it is in the stars that that particular young single adult will not get married in this lifetime. Let’s say that person reaches age 30. Instead of experiencing the walk of shame back into a family ward, head hung low, wondering how he or she went wrong, the ward just continues to treat the person as the person they knew. Sure, there will be older members who may cluck their tongues, or perhaps try to hook them up with relatives or people they know, but for the most part, that 30 year old will have relationships with people who will support the young single adult in his or her endeavors. There is no traumatic shift from the life he or she knew for 12 years into a life that does not know what to do with that person.

My concern is especially for those who do not get married in this lifetime. While it may be easier to go to a singles ward instead of a family ward, know that your time is running out – at age 30, you will be integrated into a family ward, end of story. This is of great consternation for me. The very purpose of a singles ward is to promote young people getting married within the faith. This puts an unhealthy emphasis on marriage (I feel) and unhealthy pressure on young single adults. And if that young single adult does not marry, they are branded a failure of the system because they failed to reach the singles ward’s objective – to get this person married off to another Mormon by 30. I would rather young single adults labor in a family ward and gain all of the benefits while erasing some of the stigma by not treating young single adults differently than any supposed benefit of helping people get married through the singles ward system. It’s a gamble, and a heavy price to pay if you buck the trend, which is unfortunate and supremely unnecessary.

I could go on (oh, how I could go on) but I feel this is more than enough of an illustration of how singles wards do not serve the needs of young single adults. You can still have good experiences, but there is always the potential of having better experiences. I understand, as my friend Adam politely pointed out, that in some places, integrating singles wards with family wards would be impossible. Notable example: BYU. If that’s the case, though, just chalk up the singles ward as another strange BYU phenomena that people can choose or choose not to participate in (like ice block sledding or tunnel singing or devotionals). There is no need to force every young single adult in the world to labor in the Lord’s Kingdom under sub-optimal conditions. Take any benefit from the singles ward you’ve been in and say out loud, “X benefit does not exist in a family ward.” If you find one of these sentences is true, let me know. I would truly like to know.

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