This week was my last Sunday in a singles’ ward before I join the ranks of the blissfully wed. It has caused me to review my seven years of sitting in wards where leaders crack jokes about sitting a little closer together or give lessons that involve stories about people who got married nine days after one of them returned from a mission. I’ve heard countless people announce activities and add that ‘you might meet the one while eating these baked potatoes’ or ‘there might be someone special at this pool party.’
Indeed it would seem that the sole purpose of living and breathing in a singles’ ward is to catch the attention of some other living, breathing person with whom you could spend your eternity. It can feel like the singles’ ward exists just to get us married off.
I do not mean to diminish either the importance of eternal marriage nor the need to make it a priority. In three days I will make those covenants with someone I love so dearly that it overwhelms me. His presence in my life has brought me a new kind of happiness that I would love to be able to give to all my single friends. I understand more every day why the Lord puts such emphasis on this commitment that demands so much of us and molds us into brighter, more selfless versions of ourselves.
That said, I didn’t meet him in a singles’ ward. In fact, I have never had an ongoing romantic relationship with anyone that I met in a singles’ ward. If the purpose of a singles’ ward is to get people married, were the last seven years of Sundays a total bust?
I would submit that they were not.
The purpose of a singles’ ward is something much larger than an ongoing speed-dating event.
The Singles’ Ward as a Place to be Among Peers
When I first turned 18 and it was time to go to Relief Society, I felt a little shell-shocked. Here I was in a room full of ladies that were mostly much, much older than me (or at least they seemed that way to me) and I was supposed to be one of them now. When people would raise their hands to comment on the lesson, their thoughts would often be accompanied by stories of dealing with their teenage children, husbands that had struggles at work or a host of other things that sounded utterly foreign to me. I longed to be back in Young Women’s where people said things that made sense to me. In fact, I think I continued to attend Young Women’s until I started college because I just felt out of place in the next grade up.
That is not to say that it is impossible to relate to people with different experiences than yours, but a singles’ ward is a place where you get the chance to be around peers, people that share some of your same triumphs and challenges. There is something to be said for making friends (both boys and girls) in your age and stage of life. Particularly when that stage of life is full of constant crossroads and enormous decisions and a real need for support from other people who know what it’s like and can sit and cry with you because they are experiencing exactly the same thing. The singles’ ward gave me an opportunity to learn how to reach out and help people that truly believed that I had something real to offer them and it gave me a way to find the people that could help me.
The Singles’ Ward as a Place to be Understood
Though the principles of the gospel are obviously widely applicable and carry impact and meaning for anyone at any stage, having the opportunity for lessons geared towards the particular needs of singles is an important one.
I would like to take this moment to say as an aside that a constant stream of lessons on dating and courtship is not what I mean by “lessons geared towards the particular needs of singles.” In all of my years of single adulthood, the meeting that I came away from most motivated to find an eternal companion was a fireside given by Janice Kapp Perry. She didn’t talk about marriage at all, but she demonstrated the joy that can come from marriage and family by being candid about her life’s experiences and by being up there on the stand with her husband and interacting in a way that demonstrated the kind of relationship we are all craving.
And that’s the key.
We are all already craving love and companionship and belonging and acceptance by someone who chose us. You don’t have to remind us to want it, we want it. And frankly, there are very few LDS singles in their mid-twenties who haven’t already heard most things you could say about dating to get them motivated.
By constantly showering the singles with dating-focused lessons, it begins to create an environment where a person’s value is dependent upon whether you would date them. Women who haven’t had a date in a long time, sit home thinking they aren’t worth anything. Home teachers text their home teach-ees, but don’t ever approach them in church for a chat in case that comes across as romantic interest. Sacrament meeting becomes a fashion show to see who can draw the most desire and attention. I myself have often been guilty of only attending an activity if I knew someone I was interested in would be there.
I think the most applicable lesson to focus on for the single adults is the reality of the atonement of Jesus Christ. If we all really believed that, we would be full of hope. If we really understood what Christ has done for us, we would be devoid of insecurity and bitterness and fear and all the other things that often make people struggle to form lasting relationships. If the atonement was our focus, we would believe in our worth and many more marriages would follow.
The Singles’ Ward as a Place to be Needed
There is something to be said for being needed. Gordon B. Hinckley said that every convert (and since we are all in the process of being truly converted—every member) needs, “a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing with the good word of God.” Frankly, as a person in their early-twenties in a family ward, you’re not going to be high on anybody’s list to be given the opportunity for leadership. In a singles’ ward, every person becomes an essential element to keep things going. Everybody has the chance to feel needed. Sad to say, in family wards single people often are made to feel like spare parts that no one is quite sure what to do with.
I have served in the calling of family home evening chairman several times over the years. Having the opportunity for leadership taught me things that ten years as a random calling-less member of a family ward couldn’t have taught me. Putting such effort into planning activities that weren’t always well attended has made me committed to being one of those ‘same twenty people’ that are always there to support an activity. Being a part of the structure of a ward has fundamentally changed the value I put on how I participate in that structure. Being a leader in a singles’ ward has forever made me a better follower for my future family wards.
In addition to learning those kinds of leadership lessons, a singles’ ward is also a place to feel wanted. Frankly, as people become more established in their lives and in the creation of a family they begin to care less about making new friends or adding to the dynamic of their existing community. Somebody married with four children who already has a million things on their plate and siblings that they should call more and an existing circle of friends, isn’t going to reach out with open arms to a single, 24-year-old college student who just moved in and has little to nothing in the way of shared interests. But in a singles’ ward, when everyone is striking out on their own, and no one has quite found their place yet, opportunities for new friendships abound.
The Most Important Purpose of a Singles’ Ward
The most important purpose of a singles’ ward and perhaps the thing that is most often neglected, is to provide a place where we can help each other draw closer to Jesus Christ. Your 20s in the time when you are just discovering how to seek personal revelation, just understanding how to apply the atonement and how much you will need it for life. It is a time when you first discover you can sink and must learn who to call upon for rescue.
It’s not to catch the eye of someone special, or to sit close enough to that handsome guy that he notices you, but far enough away that you’re not being totally obvious.
Singles’ wards shouldn’t be in the business of pairing people off. They should be in the business of building people up. A singles’ ward shouldn’t be something that you only involve yourself with as long as there are romantic prospects to be had. It should be a place to dig in and serve and study and love and lift.
Looking back over my time in singles’ wards, it’s not the boys that did or did not ask me out that I remember. It’s the times when I felt wholly accepted by both men and women that went out of their way to be friendly to me. It’s the opportunities I had to step up and be a leader. It’s the home teachers that were there for me. It’s the Relief Society lessons that someone clearly invested in and then said exactly what I needed to hear. It’s the bishops that were ready to handle my specific needs. We shouldn’t treat singles’ wards like their sole purpose is to be a meat market when they have the potential to be so much more.
There is an epidemic of inactivity among the young single adults of the Church and a singles’ ward has the potential to be a place where they can come or come back and find examples of people just like them who believe it and who know it and who live it and who call upon the atonement to help them live it better.
Let’s make our singles’ wards that place and let’s be that example.