Recap of “Of One Body: The State of Mormon Singledom”

Audio recordings of talks from the symposium are available here, with video of Clayton Christensen’s plenary here. Symposium organizers Matt Bowman and Sharon Harris share their thoughts below in a mock interview. We are glad to welcome them once again as guests at BCC.

On May 16, we held a symposium in New York City. Called “Of One Body: The State of Mormon Singledom.” It was designed not as a typical Mormon singles conference (planned to encourage flirting and courtship), but as a serious discussion about the growing numbers of single Mormons and the falling rates of marriage within Mormonism. Both of these trends reflect broad patterns in American culture, but we wanted to discuss what they mean for Mormons in particular. We invited a number of speakers: In the introduction Matt Bowman outlined these demographic trends and talked about the meaning of the title (drawn from the apostle Paul). Sharon Harris discussed the history of singles wards. Clayton Christensen offered thoughts on how we think about the place of single people in the Church. A panel of those in leadership callings gave their perspectives on working with single people in their flock. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife talked about the law of chastity and how singles of a wide variety of ages grapple with it, and Kristine Haglund delivered a closing homily on the place of single people in the body of Christ. We are grateful to the Manhattan stake for its sponsorship.

Why this symposium?

SHARON: As far as I can tell, single adults comprise about 30% of the adult church population, at least in the United States: according to recent Pew Forum data, 19% of American Mormons have never married, 7% are divorced or separated, and 5% are widowed. Singles make up 67% of the adult women and men in the New York New York Stake. I think that most church members don’t realize how big the percentages are. Matt did a great job of laying out some of these numbers in his opening remarks.

Besides addressing the church’s changing demographics, the symposium is also timely because the church has emphasized family so much in recent general conference addresses and in the recent curriculum change for BYU and Institute religious education that will now include a course on the eternal family. But we may not always take into consideration how that discourse lands for those who aren’t married. Do singles fit in families? Do they have families? Of course they do. Whatever the variations of singles’ individual circumstances, we are all part of a church family. We have a lot of work to do, however, to learn to talk about the subject of family in a way that is aware of singles. For me, this is one of the biggest reasons we need discussions like the symposium tried to provide.

What were highlights?

SHARON: I think the best part was seeing how many people were interested in having the conversation; it’s really heartening to see that people see the need to think about this as a church community. We had several people attend who were married, and those who were single came from all kinds of different situations; it’s not just a singles issue, and it’s not enough to have singles talk about it just within singles wards. Because there aren’t as many singles among church leadership this kind of group conversation can really help us become more aware of singles’ experiences and place in the church community. In her remarks Kristine Haglund beautifully articulated what singles have to add to conversations and understanding. Characteristically, she managed to give a poetic turn to many of the difficulties of singleness in a way that made them sites for hope.

Clayton Christensen raised a really salient question: what is the job of the ward? He talked about how businesses are most successful if they identify one job that needs to be done and do it really well. Then he extended the idea to a ward and asked if members can identify the main job of the ward unit. For me, that raises several other questions, especially related to singles wards. If the job of the ward is not to get people married, are singles wards the best way to meet the needs that many singles have re: church attendance and worship?

LDS Singles Symposium JFFAnother highlight was Jennifer Finlayson-Fife’s talk. She split open the challenge single adults face in navigating their understanding of healthy and faithful practices in dating and sexuality for single adults. Dr. Finlayson-Fife shared numerous testimonials from single adults, and it was clear that the same instruction we give the youth on this topic doesn’t always serve single adults well. I was so glad she would bring it up and create a space to think about that topic.

Matt’s got to talk about the panel. That was absolutely a highlight…

MATT: First: I’ll agree with Sharon. Much of the public acknowledgment of single people in the Church today begins with the notion that they are a problem. This is not meant to be a complaint or a critique; rather, it’s simply to acknowledge that often when we speak about single people as a distinct community within the Church, the conversation starts with the idea that singleness is something to be fixed.

Now in fact, this may be true; it may not be true. The point is that it’s an unacknowledged assumption. The question which we begin with when we talk about singles is, “How can we get them married? How can we fix it?” And honing in right on that point misses a lot of interesting and relevant questions. According to the Pew Forum on Religion in American Life, the population of adult Mormons in the United States who have never married has risen from 12% in 2007 to 19% today. According to Clayton Christensen in his presentation he found in his research among several northeastern units that the activity rates among single adult Mormon women are 17%. Among single adult Mormon men they are 8%. There is a lot going on here that we need to talk about rather than simply setting up another singles’ conference that’s really a thinly veiled dating mixer or opening another singles’ ward designed to encourage dating. There are larger cultural trends going on here that aren’t going to stop by simply hoping people will date more.

Our survey was replete with numbers indicating that the Church shoulders a few intertwined paradoxes. Our theology emphasizes marriage and family, and that’s not going to go away. And yet large numbers of Saints are not married. And because of those male/female activity rates, large numbers of Mormon women may not marry. What are we going to do about that? More, -why- are these Saints not getting married? There are lots of theories, but no solid answers.

The panel of four stake and ward leaders addressed these paradoxes head on, I think. One singles ward bishop stated that second sentence bluntly and forthrightly: Marriage is a theological imperative, and as such we need to make it happen. In so doing he brought up a fair amount of discontent. Certainly we might talk about his tone, but the fact is, in some ways that’s simply shooting the messenger. Other members of the panel talked about being pastoral to single folk, which is a palliative, certainly, and the Church can always use more pastoral care.

Sharon’s presentation really got at some essential ideas here: She showed that the growth of singles wards was really an ad hoc affair.  They began as student wards, and largely grew as the singles population grew, and in so doing lodged, in some ways, the equation of single people and students in the Mormon mind. Singles, Sharon argued, are generally perceived as not grown up, not fully adults, and in a lot of ways the culture of singles wards reflects that.  Why, she asked, do wards populated by college graduates still build pillow forts?

That’s the conversation I wanted to have: the why behind these numbers, history behind where we are today. And I think we got off to a good start.

What did you learn?

SHARON: For me, I’ve realized just how beneficial it has been to have the conversation under church auspices. When the stake Relief Society offered to co-sponsor the event, we happily took them up on it. Bringing the conversation directly under the umbrella of the stake and having official sponsorship has allowed the symposium to have an afterlife within the wards and stake in New York. Last Sunday one ward hosted a panel to discuss singles in their ward and how they can best include and incorporate everyone. I attended, and it was a terrific discussion of what the ward is doing well and how it can improve, with practical suggestions for how singles can better socialize with those who are married and vice versa. In recent training to Relief Society presidencies and bishoprics the stake leadership included some of Clayton Christensen’s ideas from the symposium. I think this kind of robust follow-up was possible because the symposium was sponsored by the stake Relief Society instead of being a separate, private event.

There are still several ideas to explore and plenty of topics we didn’t get to. Still, I’m glad it was in the church building and treated as a legitimate concern of our church body. I’m grateful for stake leaders that allowed the conversation to happen as part their stewardship. The stake is modeling how to host, respond to, and incorporate the topic of singles in the community, and I’m so encouraged that this is happening.

My main takeaway is that we need to have this conversation. People came from all over. We had about 30 stakes represented. People want to tell their stories. They want to feel confident that they’re heard, and singles want to feel confident that they do, in fact, have a place in the church.

MATT: Sharon’s right: The tradeoffs, I think, were worth it, in part because the Church was very aware that this event was taking place, and if our purpose was to drive the conversation forward, that is a good thing.

One thing I learned, I think, is how widely varying attitudes, experiences, and ideas about singles in the Church are. The bishop I referred to above received both applause and walkouts. That indicates, I think, that this is a conversation people very much want to have in open spaces, because it is a conversation that the Saints are sensitive about. It is an open hurt on the body of Christ, and something which requires ministry.

What are the next steps?

LDS Singles Symposium CCSHARON: I hope we can do it again, and I hope people throughout the church will join the conversation more and more. Two key points to take up in future discussions are 1. singles and families and 2. transitions around singles organizations in the church. We need to think long and hard about what we mean by family and what that looks like given that at least a third of adult church members are single, i.e., they don’t fit the ideal family set up taught in our lessons and talks. So what is the relationship between singles and families? Telling someone in her 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond that if she’s not married, she’s “preparing for the future” rings hollow. So maybe we need to rethink what family looks like for someone in that position. Per Clayton Christensen’s plenary message, we need to find a way to help singles (and everyone) feel needed. We need to work harder to understand what that could look like.

As for transitions, if a person attends a singles ward of some kind and doesn’t get married, eventually he/she will transition out of that ward. I think we could do a lot more work on making that transition successful. If a person is divorced or widowed, he/she will transition back to single status. We could do a better job of being aware of that transition too. The reality is that most people will spend some time as adults being single. Rather than worrying about single status or obsessing about changing it, we can do a better job of recognizing the real and crucial role that singles can have in the church community. We can do a better job of seeing singles simply for who they are, where they are right now.

MATT: Two more takeaways: There are different types of singles. It is difficult to hand a 16 year-old Young Woman and a 21 year-old returned missionary elder and a 37 year-old professional woman and Richard G. Scott the same pamphlet and assure them that all lessons in it apply to each of them. Singleness is a category made up of one thing: being single, and few lessons apply across the board to each member of the tribe.

Secondly: I’ll return to a point Sharon made earlier, which Christensen brought up in his presentation. The conversation brought up interesting points about precisely what a ward is, and what a ward is for. If the ward is a family, what should it look like? To what extent do we celebrate the ideals and imperatives of Mormon theology, and to what extent do we balance that with Paul’s admonition that the very strength of the body of Christ is, as I said in my talk, derived from the kindnesses that our differences make possible? We are not all the same, and nor do we share the same life paths, but when we come to Church it is to worship together with the spiritual gifts born of that distinctiveness. How to make that possible is the wrestle of every Sunday.

Photo credits: Marcus Bowers

Sharon Harris is an instructor of writing and English literature at Fordham University where she is also pursuing a PhD in early modern British literature. Last summer she studied the history of the family in Mormon culture with Richard and Claudia Bushman at the Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University where she researched the history of singles wards in the LDS Church. This summer she will participate in the Mormon Theology Seminar. Some of her favorite unmarried people include the youth she teaches in early morning seminary and her three hilarious and very smart nieces. See her previous guest post with us here.
Matthew Bowman is the author of The Mormon People: the Making of an American Faith. He blogs at Juvenile Instructor, and as of this fall will be Associate Professor of History at Henderson State University.

Comments

  1. I happened to be back in NYC for this, and attended as an interested pastoral outlier (i.e. married but childless.)
    I had to leave a little early, but thought it was thought-provoking. I think the take-away for me, as Matt hints at, is that you can’t pigeonhole “single.” It’s a diverse group in terms of age, and the ideals they envision. In our small group discussion, one person spoke vehemently against singles wards while another talked about how s/he’d only been able to really flourish in a singles ward. One size will not fit all, and that makes it a real challenge that requires creativity as well as flexibility.

  2. Thanks for this, especially for the links to the audio. I’ve been trying to get a hold of Kristine Haglund’s talk ever since she gave it, and I want to pin it on the forehead of every person who thinks that I’m in need of “fixing” because I’m single. (Also, I just want to share it with friends who couldn’t make it, because it was beautiful.)

  3. John Mansfield says:

    It sounds very thoughtful and potentially useful. Thanks for this blog post to pique my interest in listening to the recordings.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this great report.

  5. Thanks for this! I’m excited to listen.

    One of the thing that bothers me most about the way that the church addresses it’s single members is that the rhetoric focuses so much on the outcome – just get married! – rather than the underlying problems.

    It’s much like telling someone who keeps getting cut to just stop bleeding. While, yes, that may be what needs to happen, it’s not terribly useful. You have to address the causes of the cuts.

    In so many ways, the increased number of single members is a result of societal trends, both bad (poor job prospects for many young people) and good (more education for young women!). We need to stop blaming single members for that.

  6. Thanks, Sharon and Matt. You suggest that there were some limitations to the discussion because the symposium was “official,” that is, sponsored by and held in the church. What else do you you think needs to be discussed that couldn’t be or wouldn’t have been appropriate given the nature of the forum?

  7. Clark Goble says:

    According to the latest Pew survey only 66% of self-identified Mormons over 18 are married.

  8. Ten million thumbs up! Thanks so much for this. I haven’t actually read the post yet, but I’m very excited to do so, and that I have the opportunity to listen to the talks. Thank you, thank you!

  9. Clark Goble says:

    Two thoughts reading things. First the transition out of singles wards really is very disruptive. It was kind of devastating to me when getting my recommend renewed my Bishop told me I’d have to start attending a regular ward, despite all my friends/roommates going to that ward. I think a big problem is that people who are married and usually have little free time have difficulty relating to and including singles who perhaps have too much free time. At least that’s my experience both as an older single in his early 30’s and then later married in a ward. It’s difficult if not impossible to have the same social connection to a married ward that you did in a single ward. For married people that doesn’t matter for a slew of reasons. For single people, or at least for me, that’s a huge difference.

    Likewise boundaries in Utah can make things difficult. A few years before that I moved to a new apartment only to find the singles ward was primarily 18-22 year olds and the Bishop asked me (since I was 28) not to attend. The problem is that leads to all sorts of choices – especially between social opportunities and following the boundaries. The effect on me was to basically ward hop for several years. But that more or less meant that while I was active (I attended church every Sunday) I really wasn’t active (my records weren’t in any particular ward).

    Of course knowing the problems doesn’t mean there are good solutions.

  10. Angela C says:

    “people who are married and usually have little free time have difficulty relating to and including singles who perhaps have too much free time” This is an excellent point. My current ward and my last ward are both mid-singles magnet wards, a concept I like. At least then you have both singles and marrieds together. I don’t care for the total separation, and I definitely dislike the attitude that we need to “fix” the singles. BTW, some of the marrieds could use some fixing, too!

  11. kamuggin says:

    What a valuable talk and I’m sorry I was able to see it in person. The more we could have discussions around these points, particularly in forums that show that there is church acceptance of our reality, the more likely we will start to sense that we as singles belong to the community. Thank you.

  12. Clark Goble says:

    Angela, yeah I agree it’s not people that need fixing. It’s just that the structures of the two groups (married people with small children & singles with free time) are so radically different it may just be an insolvable problem. There are single people in my ward including my home teacher. Yet I struggle to just make time to go out with my wife while exhausted from getting up with teething toddlers and so forth. While I wish I could socialize and include them the way I’m sure they need, there’s just no way to do it and my family comes first.

    The problem (as I’ve experienced it) for a single is that if there’s no social life at church and you don’t want to spend your life watching TV you have to socialize somehow. Without a church structure to do that you end up going to non-church structures. Frankly no matter how careful you are that takes a toll. (At least it did for me) But what realistically are the choices? People in their 30’s simply aren’t the same as people in their early 20’s. I constantly saw well intentioned people who recalled singlehood from when they were 22 and it’s just not like that. (And of course I’ve been married 10 years now, so I’m sure cultures have shifted)

  13. I don’t think it has to be as complicated as finding time to have social outings, and I don’t think it’s as simple as married people having no time and single people having too much time. I know I appreciate it when people take the time to be genuinely interested in me–my work, my family–even just in the halls at church, and I made a new friend this week when I went with her to the park with her little daughters. Let’s not say the problem is unsolvable.

  14. Jack Hughes says:

    I do agree that separating marrieds and singles as two distinct classes is part of the problem, because ultimately one class will have more privilege and authority than the other, and look at the disadvantaged group as little more than a problem to be solved. In our culture, single adults unfortunately lack full personhood. Its sad that a newly married 21-year-old (still an undergrad, still pooping food he ate on his mission) has more status and qualifications in our church structure than an unmarried yet educated and experienced man twice his age. How do we get around that cultural distinction?

    But there are probably some (not me, but perhaps Elder Oaks) who would argue that second-class citizenship for singles is a good thing, as it motivates them toward getting married.

  15. Mark B. says:

    You obviously don’t know Elder Oaks. And your gratuitous slur tells much more about yourself than about him.

  16. Anonymous for This says:

    I’m part of the 4 out of 5 (or whatever the accurate number is) women who is still counted Mormon but has not been for two years (and will not be back). I’m not married, but am in a long-term relationship of two and a half years. I don’t think I have “too much” free time, and I am satisfied with my relationship with a fellow BYU alum (who apparently is one of the 9 out of 10!).

    There is much less neurosis around marriage outside the Church; and nearly all Americans will get married. I read with heedless pleasure Marriage Markets, which convinced me my strategy of establishing a career and not pressuring myself will reap giant rewards in the long run.

    It’s also a huge relief for marriage to be decoupled in my culture and now my mind from childbirth. That alone has made it a much, much more attractive prospect for me: I can’t be the only one!

  17. My favorite moment from the conference was when a woman stood up an said she didn’t believe that marriage is a requirement for salvation.

    If I weren’t so Mormon, I would have shouted “Amen!”

    I’m not saying that families aren’t important or that they won’t be together forever (though I think we may have to sort of wait and see what the next life brings) but why are we so hung up on marriage? The only place that our scriptures list it as a requirement for exaltation is the same chapter that says polygamy is required. There are a lot of things I like about Mormonism, but our deification of marriage is not one of them. I firmly believe that God cares very little about my relationship status.

  18. vaughn83 says:

    I’m a bit delayed in reading this, but I’m glad to see the summary for the symposium. Well done!