Monday, July 29, 2013

A Letter to Singles Ward Bishops

I remember one Sunday I was at BYU in Provo. I was standing in some line with a few kids I had just met in my ward, pretending to be excited about the ever enticing "free food!" gimmick we Mormons are awfully fond of.  I was making chit chat with a reasonably attractive, nice young man when one of the counselors of the bishopric walked by and said, "Now remember, enjoy the food, but don't forget to look for your eternal companion!" The kid and I smiled at each other awkwardly, made some joke about how we should get married, made it through the lunch line, then never spoke again.
Elder Boyd K. Packer once taught a lesson to a group of missionaries at a zone conference. (Full account  here.) The true story goes like this: Sister Packer bakes a beautiful cake. Elder Packer asks if anyone would like a piece. An Elder volunteers. He serves the slice of cake to the Elder on a crystal plate in a dignified manner and asks for another volunteer. While the next Elder is anxiously awaiting his slice Elder Packer rips the top off the cake with his bare hand and hurls it at the unsuspecting Elder, memorably proving the point that it's not what we do but how we do it.
There seems to be a great sense of concern over my demographic in the church of 18-30 and unmarried, and rightly so. We are tragically turning away from God at an alarming rate. Somewhere along the line, however, someone decided the way to fix this issue is to get us all married off. My feeling is that this direction comes from high up in the chain. I say this because most of the "get married" talks I've sat through come across to me as inauthentic and contrived, as if they were mandated by someone in authority. Even as a divorcee of 8 months I can say without hesitation, I believe in marriage. I believe it's Godly, I believe it's necessary and I believe it would help our inactivity rates in many instances. The doctrine of marriage and I are cool, but if I get one more piece of cake thrown at me when I didn't even volunteer for the object lesson, I'm going to become a lesbian and marry a woman, just to spite you.
Speaking generally for the body of LDS young single adults today (I've attended 11 singles wards over the course of 10 years, so I feel I can do so with some degree of authority) there are a couple things you should know.

1. Most of us want to get married. It's not because of, but in spite of the pressure put on us.
From what I can gather from the myriad of "get married" comments, talks, looks, jokes and jabs, the idea that my generation would rather play video games or travel or buy something unnecessarily shiny than get married seems to inhabit the consciousness of those in leadership. This is not true. We may enjoy video games or traveling or be pursuing school or career, but this is not why we aren't married. The majority of us want to be married because for most it's a natural part of the human experience to seek companionship. Also, we know it's one of God's greatest tools for cultivating divinity in His people. If we're attending church in this day and age as full grown adults we have our hearts set on Godly things. Give us a little credit. The pressure you're adding is doing nothing for us. Between the age appropriate, God given, biological drive for sex and the nearly palpable social pressure to take the plunge, not one of us will ever benefit from your, "Cowboy up and get 'er done" rhetoric. I don't need a Sunday school lesson to remind me that I'm behind in the race to familyhood. As for those of us who aren't interested in marriage, no public pep talk is going to change that, and the reasons we have are pretty much never as shallow as you seem to think. 

2. There was a caveat in that infamous Kimball quote.
It was 1976 when President Kimball said, " is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price." (Ensign, March 1977, First Presidency Message.) This got a lot of play wherein it was paraphrased as, "You can be happily married to anyone, so stop being so picky." If you read the article in its entirety, that's actually exactly the opposite of what he was saying. My generation has the internet, so we can read the full quote that talks about being willing to, "pay the price", and we are all too familiar with the price of a poorly chosen mate, which brings me to my next point. 

3. We are traumatized by divorce.
Our parents are divorced, our siblings are divorced, our friends are divorced, and some of us are divorced, so you can't tell us, "Marriage is the most beautiful, celestial, Godly blessing that can be known to man," without reviving in at least 50% of us sharp edged memories that fly in the face of that statement, even if it is true in some cases. Even if we desperately want it to be true for us.

4. You're giving us all a complex.
"Are you dating anyone? Why not? That's really something you should be thinking about," is a direct quote from my singles ward bishop's counselor in a private interview in Provo. I was 19 at the time. There are two possible reactions to this kind of intrusion in our lives. We either walk away thinking, "I hate that guy" or "He's right. What's wrong with me?" Either way the thought is most certainly not, "Oh yeah, I hadn't thought of that!"  In one of my more recent singles wards there was a girl who we called the, "27 and not married girl" because it was like her catchphrase, always worked into conversation somehow, always spoken like it was one, long, burdensome word. I don't know how things are on the male end of this, but I have extensive, first hand experience as to what this kind of overt pressure is doing to the beautiful, faithful, humble, dying of frustration single women of the church. It's making us doubt ourselves, dis ourselves and decrease our lists of marital "must haves" 'till we settle for sub par.  

5. We are isolated, lonely and insecure. 
We need the refuge of church. In America we believe in being fine. Don't believe me? Next time a cashier asks how you are, tell them the truth. Let me know how that works out for you. Church is designed to be a home away form home. Singles wards especially are designed to be families. When the three hours set apart that week for God are riddled with comments like, "Are you dating? Why not? You really should be." or, "Cowboy up and get 'er done!" or, "Make sure you've got your priorities straight, " we start thinking about our hair and stop thinking about our neighbor. It's about as helpful as a glass of water for a man who is drowning. Please, please, please, stop it. 
In keeping with Abraham Lincoln's counsel, "He has a right to criticize who has a heart to help," I have some suggestions to help this problem. Actually, President Kimball has some suggestions for you, straight from that massively misinterpreted talk from the 70s. I was pleasantly surprised to find some of the best straight shooter advice I've received regarding marriage in the text as I reviewed it tonight. It's worth the full read, but the one point I'd like to highlight is from his "never failing formula" for a happy marriage, and it's exactly what we need. Are you ready for this?

Teach us to be unselfish, to forget ourselves, and to focus on the good of the family, our ward family. 

What we, the endangered demographic have been taught is to take care of ourselves. We need to be taught to receive kindness graciously and look out for our brother. We've been conditioned to approach church as a soiree. We need to be taught to commune with God intimately for three sacred hours on Sunday and then spend our week days and nights with those who uplift us. We've been taught that we need to be sexy and/or rich if we want to be worth anything. We need to be taught how to find the beauty and value in every person we interact with at church. This does not happen when we are perpetually being counseled, "Don't forget to look for your eternal companion." 

I can personally and emphatically attest that the effect that a righteous bishop who listens can have on his congregation is profound. What if every Sunday instead of, "Get married" we heard our ward father say, "In this ward, we're a family, and in this family we don't leave anyone out." What if, instead of wondering how we look in our jeans and if he will notice, we were taught to pick up the ward list and call every name on it to make sure they'd gotten the invitation. What if we were encouraged to look at each other as sources of support and security instead of someone who will ultimately accept or reject us for the remainder of mortal existence and beyond? 
Help us. Teach us. Show us the way to break free from the vicious voices of the world who relentlessly, infectiously declare, "You are not good enough. You are not strong enough. You are alone." Show us how to love ourselves for who we are. Then, teach us to love something and someone more than we love ourselves, because I want to be someone who loves selflessly, and I want to marry someone who lives in selfless love. 


  1. As a singles ward bishop, I have been concerned about the pressure applied to our ward members to date. I did not marry until I was 26 and found dating to be very painful. Strangely, I relate to many of the brethren in our ward that find it hard to date. We knew then as we know now that we should be dating, but it was hard to muster the courage to call someone. Thanks for the reminder to help our ward members live the gospel and "bear each other's burdens".

    1. Thank you for reading and for your comment. I am so happy to hear from bishops who are listening to their hearts on this matter. You will do so much good in the lives of the kids in your ward. They are lucky to have a bishop like you. Keep up the good work! We pretty much just need to feel loved and understood. The rest works itself out. <3