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?
Another 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?
SHARON: 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