During October’s General Conference, I noticed a couple different speakers make reference to being part of multi-generational Mormon families. This hearkened back to a training video that the church released a few months ago, during which Elder Bednar talked about the importance of multi-generational families. “The basic purpose of all we teach and all that we do in the church,” said Elder Bednar, “is to make available the priesthood authority and gospel ordinances and covenants that enable a man and woman and their children to be sealed together and happy at home. Period. Exclamation point. End of sentence. That’s it.” He went on to say that “in the savior’s restored church on the earth today, multi-generational families are a primary source of spiritual strength and continuity.” He then compared the impact of multi-generational families to small seedlings in a large forest. “A young seedling develops into a mature tree and produces seeds that fall to forest floor. As conditions are right, the new seeds germinate, begin to grow and the cycle is renewed.”
He also shared this flowchart, for those of us who are visual learners:
He said that the cycle usually breaks down between point A (child converts baptized and confirmed) and point B (endowment) and asserted that this was (usually) due to “weak gospel teaching and modeling in the home.”
I cannot dispute that being part of a multi-generational Mormon family is a big contributor to people growing up to get endowed and remain Mormon and raise their children Mormon. We tend to stick with the religion we were raised with, for lots of reasons. For one thing, it is the spiritual language we know and the one in which we’re most fluent. What we’re taught in our youth, as our brains are developing, tends to stay with us for a lifetime. We want share our values and knowledge with our children. It helps us feel connected to our extended family. These are powerful motivating factors. The concept conveyed in this flowchart seems fairly self-evident: faithful Mormons make more faithful Mormons, and we want more faithful Mormons. I don’t imagine Elder Bednar thought he was inventing the wheel here. However, I had a few problems with his flowchart.
First thing: It bears an uncomfortable resemblance to something you’d see in a Dilbert comic.
Second thing: It excludes anyone who is not married, sealed in the temple and raising children (or have already raised children, who are hopefully in turn raising their born-in-covenant children), implying that the gospel is not really applicable to single people or people without children, or perhaps only that such people have nothing to contribute. Maybe both.
Third thing: It says that if your children choose not to become endowed, get sealed in the temple, and raise children in the church, it’s most likely your fault.
Fourth thing: It says the purpose of living the gospel is to make more Mormon families, rather than to bring souls to Christ.
The good news is that I’m willing to let the first thing go. The bad news is there are still those three other things.
I understand that the church has a vested interest in families raising children who stay active in the church as adults and go on to receive temple ordinances and hopefully raise more children who do the same thing, on and on for as long as we have to until Jesus comes back. But wait—I don’t see Jesus on the flowchart. I forget—does Jesus have anything to do with whether or not people stay active in the church? I seem to recall the church doing a study or something a few years ago that concluded the best predictors of children growing up to serve missions and/or go to the temple were personal prayer and personal scripture study. Or did I just dream that? Do we have new data that indicates agency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that most people raised in the church become inactive between baptism and receiving their endowments. If you’re raised in the church, you usually get baptized at age eight. You won’t receive your endowment for at least another ten years. A lot can happen in ten years, especially if those years are between the ages of eight and eighteen. Not only do circumstances change drastically—you go from being a dependent child to a (hopefully) (somewhat) independent adult—but your actual brain changes. (Drastically!) Your parents could be the best parents in the world—they might do everything right, including daily family prayer and daily family scripture study and weekly family home evening and delighting the crap out of the Sabbath, and you still might choose not to become endowed and marry in the temple as an adult because you are a grown-ass person and you do what you want. Lehi raised Nephi and Sam, but he also raised Laman and Lemuel. God Himself raised trillions of us in the pre-existence and one-third chose to follow Satan. Unfortunately, lots of us who chose to keep our first estate talk as though we are really following Satan’s plan, i.e. as though other people’s agency doesn’t matter. Well, children actually do have free will. Heaven knows I wish they didn’t sometimes, but it’s too late for that now.
The good news is that if your kid ends up leaving the church, it is probably not your fault. The bad news is that you have no control over whether they stay or go; it’s their decision.
In this church we have an unfortunate track record of treating our single brothers and sisters as though they don’t exist or as though their lives don’t count. We teach our youth that they must marry in the temple as though it were an end in itself, instead of something that we do along the way to a much more significant end. Too often in church we talk about gospel principles only in terms of how we can teach our children the importance of x, y, z–as though we ourselves (as temple-endowed and –sealed adults) have already arrived, and all that remains is for us to raise children who will make the same choices we did. Single people are treated as though they aren’t living “real life.” Real life is marriage and children; everything else is just practice—or alternatively, a waste of time. We think it’s comforting to tell people that if they don’t get married in this life, they can still have a real life after they’re dead.
We tell single people that they shouldn’t feel left out, but then we turn around and leave them out. I wasn’t a single adult for very long (I married at 26, which is practically a baby by Satan’s standards), but I remember what it was like to be a grown woman who was treated like a child because I hadn’t been married yet. I can only imagine how galling this must be at 36, 46 or 56. I also remember being a young woman not remotely interested in getting married and having children and feeling like church didn’t apply to me because I didn’t want the things I was supposed to want. (When I don’t even want the things I’m supposed to want, why would God want me?) People don’t internalize these messages from isolated incidents. The message is constant and consistent: family is what matters. Here we have an apostle saying explicitly that the purpose of everything we do in the church is to make sure people get married in the temple and keep the belief cycle going. If you don’t have the prospect of marriage in mortality, it’s not difficult to imagine that you’re somehow irrelevant to this Kingdom of God.
The good news is that you have agency; you can choose whether or not to be offended by this implicit characterization of your life. The bad news is if you are offended, tough crap, we have families to save.
It’s not as though I think that we should never talk about family at church, that we shouldn’t tell people to get married and teach their children the gospel. That would be silly. Most people want to get married and have children, even if they’re not Mormons. Most people want to instill their values and beliefs in their children. In Mormonism this tendency goes up to 11 because so much is at stake: the point of life—the point of eternity—is to have one big happy family, where we’re all sealed to our ancestors, who are sealed to their ancestors, and so on and so on and so on; the only way for us to be together with our beloved families forever is to be sealed in the temple and remain true to the covenants we make there. If a child decides somewhere between baptism and endowment that they’d actually rather not get sealed in the temple and make more BIC babies, the chain is broken. At least in theory.
When we’re confronted with actual human beings grieving over their wayward children, we have handy quotes from apostles and prophets that reassure these poor parents that they and their kids will somehow be okay. Still, no one can go to church week after week, year in and year out, and fail to get the message that families can only be together forever if they’re sealed in the temple. This doctrine permeates our gospel instruction. Case in point: This talk was part of a training meeting focused on keeping the Sabbath day holy. We now even keep the Sabbath because marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. This is not a church where anyone can be confused for long about what our priority is.
My bishop showed excerpts of this training meeting video, including Elder Bednar’s talk, for our ward’s fifth Sunday combined meeting in September. During the ensuing discussion I broke with my own personal tradition and said what was on my mind–that I was frankly disturbed by Elder Bednar’s remarks, which framed Sabbath observance—indeed, everything we do in the church—in terms of family rather than individual salvation. A single sister who is divorced (and never sealed in the temple) later said that Elder Bednar’s words didn’t make her feel left out because the members of our ward are her family—which is exactly as it should be, and it reflects well on our ward that this sister feels that way.
Unfortunately, not everyone feels that they are part of their ward “family”—or if they do, they feel like they’re in one of those dysfunctional families that would probably be better off not being forever. My daughter, for example, is almost 18 years old. That she does not feel a part of her ward family is not (necessarily) the fault of anyone in our ward. My daughter’s situation is one that would benefit from a more individualized ministry—one that talks to her about her own relationship with God rather than her as-yet-hypothetical family. If you tell her that keeping the Sabbath is important because it means she’s more likely to get married in the temple and have children she’ll then raise Mormon, she isn’t going to find that persuasive or edifying. Frankly, I don’t find it persuasive or edifying, and I actually have a family I’m trying to raise Mormon.
I understand that this was a training meeting, not a devotional, and from an administrative standpoint it makes sense to talk about how to retain active church members; Elder Bednar’s remarks weren’t meant for people like my daughter, and they probably weren’t even meant for people like me. I don’t mind that he said things that weren’t meant for my ears. I mind that he gave a talk ostensibly about keeping people from going inactive between baptism and endowment but came off sounding like he doesn’t give a crap about anything but perpetuating multi-generational families for the sake of keeping Mormonism solvent.
Now, in fairness, I’m certain Elder Bednar cares about a lot things, including individual souls; families, after all, are comprised of individual souls. So I guess I just don’t see why we can’t frame these discussions in terms of individual souls. Not everyone is married with a family; everyone has a soul. There’s no reason why a single member of the church can’t nourish the faith of others; I’d be very surprised to learn Elder Bednar disagreed with me on that. But he didn’t frame the discussion in such a way to include members of the church who are single, divorced, not-sealed, gay, childless (or child-free)—the people who are more likely to leave church activity, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the church is so great at treating them like they don’t exist–or worse, don’t matter.
As the scripture goes, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Similarly, I think that while the family is ordained of God, it exists for the individual and not the individual for the family. Some of us are born into families who love and strengthen us all our days. Some of us aren’t as lucky. Some of us end up making families of our own choosing which may not follow the traditional (nuclear) model. Some of us are blessed to have a ward that acts as our family—in addition to or in place of the one we inherited at birth. A person who gets married and has children and raises them to be good Mormons contributes to the kingdom of God, but that is not the only or even the most important way to contribute to the kingdom of God.
Jesus said there were two great commandments: to love God and to love your neighbor. Each of us fulfills the commandment to love our neighbor within our own sphere, regardless of whether or not we have a spouse or children. If you do have a spouse and children, I certainly hope you are loving and serving them. If you don’t have a spouse or children, you are probably loving and serving someone else. Everyone in this church has something to give, and no one’s gift should be ignored. We don’t have to be married or related to each other to strengthen each other. A single person has as much to offer as a married person. A gay person has as much to offer as a straight person. A divorced person has as much to offer as someone who isn’t divorced. A person with no kids has as much to offer as a person with ten kids. This is because each of us has only himself to give, and each of us offers something unique.
If your child decides to leave the church, it may not be because of anything you did. If they decide to stay in the church, it may not be because of anything you did. It may be the influence of someone else in your child’s life that makes the difference. This other person may be single or married, a parent or not. Or it may not be another person at all. In the end it will really just be your child, as an individual, making his or her own choice.
I once sat in a class taught by a Relief Society president whose teenage son eventually died of cancer. Knowing that her son would not go on a mission or get married in the temple or have children of his own–all the usual markers of a successful Mormon life–she asked herself what was the most important thing that he could do during his relatively short mortal life, and she realized that it was for him to have a personal relationship with his Savior so that he would be prepared to return to him. She went on to say how important it was for everyone to have a personal relationship with God so that they can receive personal revelation for their own lives, which may or may not match up with the prescribed template. She knew that her son had developed that personal relationship with his Savior and that he was ready to return to live with God. During the time he’d been given, he had done the one thing that was needful.
A few years ago our Young Women presidency asked me and some other mothers to give the young women advice about what qualities and skills are most important to prepare them for motherhood, or something along those lines. I gave this a lot of thought, and what I ended up saying is that the traits and skills that will make you a good mother are also the traits and skills that make you a good person. Sure, it helps to know how to change diapers, but even if you don’t practice that ahead of time, you’ll probably be able to pick it up on the job. In the meantime, patience, hard work, a sense of humor, and compassion will serve you well no matter what path you choose in life, and they also happen to be the most important for parenthood. Likewise, ministering to individuals as individuals is the most effective way to minister to families. Everybody wins!
More importantly, nobody loses.