Monday, June 4, 2007

The Scarlet "S"

One of the most interesting things discussed last weekend was that of singleness in the Church. Suzette and Julie, our speakers at the Retreat, are both returned missionaries in their late 30's. Several topics were brought up that I thought were pertinent. Foremost in my mind was the comment that a single person lacks legitimacy in a married Church. We do have a coming-of-age ritual in the form of a mission. But even after serving a mission, in the Mormon society one is not fully grown and a member of the "adult" class until they have been married. This results in strange behaviors, such as speakers who will come into singles wards and talk down to them as a group, though several of his audience may actually be older than he.

In our discussion, one woman mentioned that she has noticed that married couples without children also struggle with lack of legitimacy.

Singles in married wards are often treated like teenagers, and seldom receive leadership callings. They are sometimes asked to babysit instead of joining in the activities that married couples are attending without their children. Julie spoke of some notable exceptions she has seen, such as a Boston singles ward which was given much responsibility in the Temple. They also were called upon to organize and lead a Youth Conference. In addition, Julie had two single Relief Society Presidents in her family ward in Northern Utah. These things lift the entire Church as we utilize the now-dormant strengths of many additional adult members.

I know that Sister Barbara Thompson, newly called Second Counselor of the General RS Presidency is a single woman. I wonder if she will have an influence in being a role model for women or effect any change in the status quo for singles. I don't hold my breath, since our last General RS had quite a low visibility in the Church.

Suzette said that marrieds might have an image of singles as having a wild and crazy social life, playing Ultimate Frisbee every afternoon with a group of cute guys. This makes them reluctant to invite singles to socialize or join them in their comparatively boring activities. "I'm in my late 30's, and I like to do things that other people my age do," she pointed out. Unfortunately, there is usually a "Great Divide" among the single and married members of a ward. Suzette observed that since the predominant culture in the Church is a "family," it is incumbent upon the married members to open a way to integrate the singles.

Our two presenters gave married members several suggestions to help integrate singles into the culture. One of the most poignant was their plea not to try to "fix" singles as if something were broken. Many church members feel a vast discomfort with single members and sense the ambiguity with our doctrine which necessitates marriage for progression and Godhood. They try to probe the psyche and discover what is wrong. The single member must be gay, or too picky, or too intimidating.

In what ways have you seen the Church making efforts to integrate singles? Where do you stand on the "Singles Wards versus Married Wards" controversy? If you've experienced time as an adult single member of the Church, please share any insights you have gained.


JohnR said...

BiV, this is a little bit of a tangent since it's not strictly related to the church, but in the past year we switched from placing expectations on our children that they would get married when they get older. Instead, we've started telling them that they can choose to thrive as singles or as marrieds.

ZD Eve said...

I'm totally the wrong person to comment on singleness, having been married for 11 years now, but I just wanted to say amen to the observation that marrieds without children struggle for legitimacy as well. We are stuck in a perpetual social adolescence--people constantly want to fix our childlessness, ask nosy questions, offer remedies, lecture us about the importance of having children, tell us that our lives are nothing compared to what they will be when we have children, explain to us why God hasn't given us children, or treat us like a pair of cute, ditzy newlyweds (since that's what they were when they didn't have children, people tend to assume we're still in some doey-eyed gaga stage). I find it especially tiresome to be condescended to by women who are, in some cases, much younger than I am.

Sorry, that wasn't very on topic. As you were.

Tanya Sue said...

I am 32 and single. In my stake they took everyone that was over the 31 singles ward age limit and put us all together in a family ward. At first I was really excited at the prospect, but now that isn’t how I feel. I feel that we have a ward inside a ward, with separate temple nights, activities, etc. I have also heard some of the married couples in the ward refer to us as “youth”. For me, it has created an awkward dynamic that contributes to my dilemma of where I want to stand in relation to the church.

For a time when I was younger I opted to go to a family ward instead of a singles ward. I actually had the bishop encourage me to go to a singles ward because “they weren’t equipped to deal with singles”. As a woman who questions whether I want to get married and have children (as opposed to it being a given), it makes me wonder if I want to be in a place where I have to struggle so much to fit it.

In regards to what Eve said about married people without kids not fitting in, I have seen that as well. The assumption is always that couples are selfish-as opposed to one of about a billion other reasons why they aren’t having children. I would always hope that in the gospel we would err on the side of love and compassion at all times but find that isn’t often the case.

Paula said...

One off-topic comment-- it's really hard to see your link for comments,at least if you are in the age of bifocal necessity like me. The visited link color shows up well, but the link doesn't show up without some hunting, so if you're getting new folks coming here from retreat traffic, you might want to make it more visible.

As for me, I don't really know what to do about this, except to perhaps just tone down all the "Familyolitry" in general-- cut out the huge emphasis on family units and emphasize people's salvation and spirituality more.

Bored in Vernal said...

John, at the retreat we did talk about some ways we could help our children feel comfortable with the idea that perhaps they would not get married. I think social interaction with well-integrated singles helps tremendously. I've been trying to think of a way to get my girls together with some of the fantastic single women I met this weekend!

Eve, your comment was very fitting. I've seen members treat both singles and marrieds without children inappropriately. I don't recall this being the case in the church I grew up in (I am a convert.) Do you think it is possible to put an emphasis on marriage and family without causing problems in integrating singles, or would it necessitate a change in doctrine?

Tanya Sue, the "ward within a ward" description is perfect! It seems that in family wards there is either a whole separate program for singles, or they feel that they are "not equipped" to deal with singles. What can be done to change this?

Tanya Sue said...

Great question-and I love you for asking it!!! I think include everyone in everything. Don’t make it so that there is singles program so separate that singles cannot be a part of the ward as a whole. One Sunday School, one temple night, etc. Not two different ones.

The lessons could focus on things that apply to all-the Atonement, Love, Service, Prayer, etc. Less lessons on motherhood, etc.

Service. I may not be married but I am capable of helping someone who needs it. On the other side just because I am single doesn’t mean I don’t need help too-when I was in chemo and still had to work full time to support myself I would have given anything for some help. Even just a phone call to see how I was- I didn’t have a spouse to help me and check up on me. Yet I saw how often help was given to people who were married who either had the means to buy every meal out or didn’t have any children left at home got help. I really think being single played a big part.

I think also, stop harping on marriage. Trust me we know the church thinks we should be married by now-I am 32 I have heard it since I was a kid. I

And why are wards “equipped” to handle single people with they have kids but not single people who have never married or married and never had kids? Why are we different? It was really distressing that they could find a way for the kid with Down Syndrome to have a place, but not for me the (at the time) a 24 year old single sister who didn’t want to go to singles ward.

I think if we remember that the a huge part of church is providing community and support to one another-to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort that we will do better. We need to stop drawing attention to our differences and focus on the fact we are children of God who need to love and support one another.

Sorry for the book, but this has really been on my mind lately especially as I work out my testimony. I often feel that there really isn’t a place for someone like me in the church. A single feminist who refuses to feel sorry for myself and cry every day because I am not married.

amelia said...

i'm in a ward similar to the one tanya sue mentions--the family ward that's been designated as a magnet ward for mid-singles. and my experience is very different, for a variety of reasons.

i very much believe that part of the reason is the nature of the ward tanya references. it violates standard church policy by allowing people who live outside its boundaries to attend (wards like this typically allow all the mid-singles in the stake to attend a single ward designated as a magnet ward; this particular ward allows many people from outside the stake boundaries to attend, also). it also sponsors enormous singles activities--weekends at the river and singles conferences among them. i think both of those things heavily contribute to the feeling that the singles are a distinct entity from the rest of the ward (as well as the other things tanya mentions).

my ward is small and our bishop makes use of everyone in it to fill all of its needs. i hold two callings. one in RS and one in the singles program. several other singles are in this position. several of them also hold leadership callings in the ward (YM presidency; SS president; etc.). while we have our own sunday school class and a monthly family home evening, we're also included in all of the ward activities and the singles go to those activities. i've gotten to know several children in the ward and love that they seek me out to say hi and give me hugs on sundays. i know that some of the young single parents in the ward are friends with the other parents in the ward and their children play together. and i've had many women older and more experienced than me thank me for my contributions in teaching RS. i have never felt like the ward sees the singles as separate or "youthful." instead, the singles in this ward are loved and relied upon and served just like everyone else.

i agree with tanya that the singles program should not be made so separate that the singles are not integrated, in spite of the fact that they are technically in the same ward. but i am glad that the singles program exists--that the church and our local leadership are making some effort to facilitate single members of the stake meeting and socializing. because the fact is that while i sometimes have serious doubts about whether i'll ever marry (and unlike tanya i have no doubt about the fact that i want to marry), i still hope to marry. and i don't know how that's supposed to happen if there aren't at least some opportunities to meet other single mormons. i also believe strongly that it's important for everyone in the church to know that they're not alone in their life experiences. one of the strengths of a ward is that it allows mormons to fellowship other mormons. Relief Society allows women to find strength in communing with other women who have similar experience. play groups (our ward has a big, very active one) allow mothers to get together and share their problems and joys. and singles groups can allow singles to find strength in friendships with other singles. that's not to say there isn't strength to be found in heterogenous groups; merely to say that strength can be found in both homo- and heterogenous groups and that each kind of group brings a different strength. so i'm glad to be part of a singles group that's in a family ward where i can receive the support and love and strength of both kinds of fellowship groups.

and now i've gone on and on. :) i'm wont to do that.

Tanya Sue said...

In defense of my ward,

My ward doesn’t violate church policy as church policy allows for priesthood leaders to make exceptions as needed. Many of the people in my ward were “grandfathered” in under a previous bishop. Keep in mind that my stake has 2 singles wards, the singles ward in your stake hasn’t been a ward all that long. There are technically 3 singles wards that feed singles into this ward. Also, there are several families that, for various reasons, have received permission from leadership of their wards and our ward to attend. I don’t feel like we have the insights and knowledge to question that.
In this ward one of our married members recently took her life while pregnant. She was one of the exceptions. I don’t know the other reasons for exceptions-but I trust there is more than I know and the well being of all is being considered.. I sometimes feel that you have a thing against my bishop-especially when many things were in place before he was put in as bishop.

I totally agree on the river trip thing. The youth also do the river trip and I think that is sometimes why people associate the singles with the youth. But I do believe that he does the same thing with families too.

The single conference was a church wide event that we merely sponsored and did the leg work for. People literally flew in from around the world-it was not a ward activity. The point was to allow people who are not able to meet people locally an opportunity to meet other singles in a spiritual environment-whether for dating or friendship. There are other conferences like this all over the country. Since you want to get married and haven’t met a good fit locally I would think an opportunity to meet others you wouldn’t normally would be considered a good thing,

Also, I know a large group of singles in your stake that really enjoy the family wards they attend and choose not to do the mid-singles scene. That is why the mid-singles subset is smaller.

While all of the subgroups in a ward are fine, I think building ward unity should always be the first concern.

Bored in Vernal said...

Interesting...I'm starting to realize that singles wards are handled many different ways throughout the church. I've never seen a magnet ward with singles and families. I'm glad "policy" isn't always written in stone. Situations are quite varied.

In general, I'm thinking that the more activities a ward can sponsor, the better. Singles activities, play groups, book groups, river trips, etc. In many wards I have attended there has been a _huge_ push to scale down on activities. IMO this is a mistake. If someone is too busy, or wants to put more emphasis on their family, they shouldn't feel obligated to attend. But I appreciate the opportunity to socialize and get to know people on a deeper level.

Janell said...

Drifting around the topic a bit, I hate being segregated into a singles' ward as it severely limits the range of experience to draw from (particularly as I'm in a student-dense area). There are a lot of things single women don't understand and I really wish we had some married women, women with children, grandmothers, etc to contribute to our ward.

Tanya Sue said...

I think more activities are fine. The ward I grew up in had two huge activities a year that everyone knew were the most exciting that everyone went to. Other activities have varying degrees of attendance.

With a singles ward (or mid-singles in a family ward) they don’t scale back activities that I have seen. I heard (but have never verified) that the percentage of singles that go inactive in the church is quite large.

Janell I completely agree that we have much to teach each other and learn from each other. I think any kind of diversity is great.

amelia said...

i'm not sure why you think i have a poor opinion of your bishop, tanya. i've never met the man and i don't think i've ever expressed an opinion of him. all i meant to point out here is that one reason why the singles group in your ward may feel so separate is that the ward allows more singles to attend than would naturally attend under standard policy; the bigger the singles group, the more likely it is that it will feel separate. and i didn't criticize the activities i mentioned; i just think they probably foster the idea that the singles are a separate unit--a ward within a ward that is distinct from the family portion of the ward.

i do tend to get a bad taste in my mouth about singles conferences. partially because of the kinds of speakers they usually bring. partially because of the atmosphere of superficial competition i've experienced at such huge singles events. partially because i know how much that conference cost to put on and it seems an almost immoral use of money to me. mostly because it's not my cup of tea. i don't like socializing in such large groups. but i realize that others like the kinds of speakers that come, don't see anything wrong with the atmosphere, and think the money is well spent to give so many people an opportunity to meet and mingle. and that's fine with me. none of this changes the fact that such activities would tend to set the singles group in the ward apart from the rest of the ward, which was your original complaint about your ward.

one of the strengths of a mid-singles program is that the activities are open to all the mid-singles in the stake. we have several who attend their own family ward on sunday because they like those wards but who come to our firesides and activities for mid-singles. which i think is fantastic.

my point is not that there is a standard solution to the problem of meeting the needs of singles; my point is simply that i think the church needs to provide institutional opportunities for singles to meet and socialize rather than telling them when they hit 31 that their on their own when it comes to finding other mormon singles. there are many ways those needs could be met, from having singles wards to singles groups within each ward to magnet wards and stake-sponsored singles activities.

a former single sister said...

Singles in married wards are often treated like teenagers, and seldom receive leadership callings. They are sometimes asked to babysit instead of joining in the activities that married couples are attending without their children.

this was very much not my experience, so i say it depends on the ward. i was taken in immediately, treated like an equal. i was given significant callings. our rs pres. was single. there were no differences in the way anyone was treated. it was one of the best ward experiences i have ever had. my best friends were married with kids. we were all like one big happy fam.

i have seen some singles also sort of get what they put in. there was one single in our stake who was notorious for getting upset anytime marriage was mentioned. she complained constantly about the way the church handles things. of course her experience was awful, and a lot of that was her fault. i don't doubt that some people don't know how to relate to singles and sometimes leaders don't get it, but sometimes singles don't know how to just jump in and get involved anyway and help people see that they are normal adults who have a lot to offer. this can't all be always put on the wards or the married folk.