Since a lot of the discussion on my previous post focused on reasons singles feel alienated at church (as well as things that the church and members can do to make singles feel a bit less alienated), I thought I’d put up my first post directly on that topic–how to make singles feel more welcome in family wards.
To make a long story short, in one of my singles wards I almost went inactive (I’ll tell this story at a later date), and I was nervous about switching to a family ward because I was afraid I would feel even more alienated and out of place. Luckily, the opposite was the case–I attended the most amazing family ward I have ever been in, and I can’t even begin to enumerate the blessings that came into my life because of being in that ward.
However, as I’ve gotten older, even though I’ve primarily been in good, supportive, loving wards, being in a family ward has gotten increasingly more difficult. My post on marriage primarily addresses the reasons why, and a lot of the comments echo my own feelings (see especially comments #5 and #26 by Ardis) but I’d also like to reference thoughts by Karen H and Lynnette from a recent post by Kevin Barney at BCC. In the comments of Kevin’s post, there was a discussion about why church attendance is difficult for singles. Karen H. commented,
Trust me when I say that single members understand that they are an exception. For faithful single members it is a gut wrenching, frequent tear inducing, constant heartache of understanding. Not only do they deal with the loneliness of being single, they accurately see the lack of potential dating partners, and they are literally told that this life experience that they would do anything to change, will also keep them out of the highest level of heaven. What is the most often “comforting” phrase that they hear? “You’ll find someone in the next life.” That’s right–they are told the spiritual equivalent of “this life’s pretty much a wash for you. Then you’ll die.” Then, based not on scripture, but on an oft repeated cliche, they’re told “don’t worry, then you’ll get to marry a dead guy.”
And Lynnette wrote,
LDS singles are well aware that they’re supposed to get married, regardless of how well (or not) they’re treated at church. Really. I promise….Much of the time, I feel like I’m holding on by my fingernails when it comes to maintaining activity in the church. My ward is fabulous, and yet it still feels just brutal some weeks to go and deal with the implicit message that I’ve failed at the most important thing in life. I have to admit that for me, this is less an incentive to redouble my efforts to get married than an incentive to simply not go to church anymore. I wish I had something more constructive to say, but honestly, I’m at a loss.
By it’s very nature, church-going is often painful for singles, and I’m not sure that this is entirely avoidable, unless the church is going to stop teaching family as one of the core principles of the gospel, which they’re not going to do; I’m not sure that most singles would even want this. However, there are ways of making family wards a more inclusive and supportive environment for singles. Let me talk about my experience in the family ward I was in after leaving the singles ward–I think this will convey ways that church can be a friendlier place for singles.
*The first week I was in my ward, three or four people came up to me to introduce themselves, ask me if I was new to the ward, etc. As I spent more time in the ward, this changed–people got to know me, and then they would come up and ask questions about my life and how I was doing.
*I had a calling within a few weeks, and the entire time I was in the ward, I had callings that felt meaningful to me.
*A month or two after I started attending the ward, they had a panel discussion in a joint RS/Priesthood meeting about teaching and raising children. They asked me to participate on the panel because they genuinely wanted to hear my perspective on this issue. After being on this panel, I was called as a primary teacher because the primary president valued the thoughts I had shared.
*People in the ward took an active interest in my life. They would ask me about how school or teaching was going, and they would talk to me about their own lives. These interactions were not motivated by pity, but by a genuine desire to get to know me and develop a meaningful relationship with me. I did not get intrusive inquiries into my dating life.
*Multiple families regularly invited me to their homes to spend time with them, since they knew that my family (parents, siblings, etc.) were far away. (Incidentally, this is something I welcome as a single in the church–my family is far away, and hanging out with other people’s families that I feel comfortable with makes me less homesick for my parents, siblings, and nephews.)
*Men in the ward weren’t afraid to speak with me at church, ward activities, or when I visited their homes. Quite a few men in my ward had been in the graduate program I was in, and so I had some great conversations about the program, professors we enjoyed, the stresses of graduate school life, etc. These men’s wives did not freak out that I was getting to know their husbands because they understood I needed friends and people to talk to (and they also developed friendships with me based around our shared interests).
*The members and leadership of the ward treated me like a mature, intelligent person. I was treated like an adult, rather than someone still in young men or young women’s (which, honestly, is how singles are sometimes treated). No one ever told me that I would understand “X” gospel principle when I got married, had children, etc. Ward members recognized that because I had unique experiences, I had unique insights to share, and they valued my insights.
*I was given home and visiting teachers that I feel were inspired choices. At the time I moved into the ward, I did not have a car, and I was assigned home teachers who could drive me to and from church. And my visiting teacher took me to the grocery store about once a month to do my major shopping and counted that as her monthly visit, which was a fabulous arrangement by me. (One piece of advice: do not assign singles to solely home- and visit-teach one another–they should not be segregated from the rest of the ward members.)
Overall, this ward was a place that embraced people for who they were and made sure that everyone felt welcome. Honestly, I don’t think singles are the only people who can feel out of place at church, and I think a lot of these strategies can be used to make a church more inclusive, welcoming place for everyone (in whatever life circumstances they may find themselves). Also, I recognize that each of us has limitations and challenges (i.e. my sister Vada has a difficult time reaching out because she is chasing her small children around all the time). These are meant as broadly applicable recommendations and not as judgments of individuals or leaders, all of whom are dealing with a myriad of challenges. Also, I am fully aware that singles can and should be part of this effort to reach out and and make wards a more inclusive place. Still, these suggestions are a place to start.
The social issues I think are easier to figure out than the doctrinal issues. Returning to the initial comments by Karen H. and Lynnette, what makes church especially difficult for singles is not necessarily how they’re treated by individual members (though this can make something that is by it’s nature difficult even more difficult). However, church is primarily difficult because of the unrelenting emphasis on marriage and family.
Like I said, no one is asking for the family to be downplayed at church, but trying to figure out how to maintain an ideal without completely alienating those that don’t fit it is challenging. Here are a few suggestions I have (though I acknowledge these are incomplete and insufficient):
*As Katya said on my previous thread, don’t resort to platitudes or false comfort when talking about marriage to singles (i.e. “you’ll get married in the next life”). It’s much easier to hear empathetic comments like “I’m not sure why you haven’t had the chance to be married and have a family yet, but I’m sure that must be really hard. How do you deal with it?”
*If you’re a teacher, be aware that many people do not fit family ideals. if you’re teaching a lesson on service in the family, for example, ask at least one question that applies to people who don’t fit the ideal: you could say something like “not all of us have family members that we can serve on a regular basis. What challenges does this situation present, and how can we overcome them?” Ask questions about dealing with the real challenges of the here and now rather than saying something like “here’s how this lesson will apply to you singles in the future.” Incidentally, this suggestion is more broadly applicable and can be adapted to approach other people in non-ideal situations like divorce, infertility, etc.
*If you’re a leader with some control over talks, lessons, etc., don’t focus on the family at the expense of other basic gospel principles. All members, both married and single, need to hear more about the Atonement, faith, repentance, listening to the spirit, etc.
So, there are my list of suggestions. Any other suggestions, stories, insights? I’d especially be appreciative of comments from singles who have found ways of dealing with hearing about families and marriage at church week after week after week while still maintaining their emotional sanity. For me, I find the best practices are to focus on feeling the spirit, to connect with friends in the ward (even if we’re naughty and talk in the halls during Sunday School), and to give myself permission to leave if church is not aiding my spiritual growth that week.